King lives and writes in Nashville, Tenn.
Last night I dreamed that I was back in Germany, but this time I was stationed near a massive city, instead of in the midst of the charming and quaint town of Landstuhl I loved so much. Landstuhl always was something of a comforting reminder me of home in a strange, unfamiliar universe.
In fact, for this tour of duty, I truly had no conception of where I was stationed, and didn’t really care. I had been stationed on the post for weeks completely indifferent to my surroundings, and one day during work when everything was slow, the entire unit piled into an enormous camouflage van and headed for the mystery metropolis. We were all in uniform, and technically still on duty, so there was to be no drinking, of course. And also of course, I was demoralized.
But the moment we arrived, I felt that total sobriety would be preferable. I mean, who could get a beer down in a place like this, where the noise and the swirl of disorder was so crippling it choked the soul and made the throat close up, purposely denying itself oxygen as to head for the grave, away from the madness? I was seated next to Van Heusen, an actual old roommate of mine, and I had to scream into the side of his face to ascertain where we were.
“Say, what is this hell-hole we’re in?”
“WHAT IS THIS HELL-HOLE WE’RE IN?!”
“Oh, it’s called Bad Hamburg. You didn’t know? What rock have you been stationed under?”
I didn’t offer him any explanation, because frankly I didn’t feel like talking, much less roaring like a grizzly bear to get across a single sentence. I just sat back and watched, weeping internally.
There was the sharp, metallic sheen of modernity everywhere; of glass and steel and diamond-like glinting rushing from everywhere at once, unlike at a lake when the sun is dropping, and the glinting tends to stroll across the surface of the water as to be savored, or at the least pinpointed. In fact, Bad Hamburg, its name’s introduction fitting, hardly resembled Germany at all; it was more like Tokyo had been surgically implanted and, as a kind yet futile gesture, a cathedral or two and a few small buildings of timeless European descent were preserved to cower among the skyscrapers and the rip-off outlets. The entire community (could it be called that?) was comprised of imitation jewelry, ten-dollar Nikes and tax-breaking corporate manufacturing outposts. Christ, there were even neon Coors and Budweiser signs in the windows of the bars, in the middle of Germany!
Finally the van was parked, and I stepped off, disoriented and nauseated and with a splitting headache. We snaked through the narrow corridors off the main strip, dodging thousands of people, as the vendors at the stands shook five-dollar watches and necklaces in our faces while belting their haggles, and I ducked into a bar with a girl from our unit. I’d been dead wrong; complete sobriety could never be endured in a place like this. So I ordered a beer, a fucking Miller Lite; the Army could send me home if they wanted for having a watered-down beer; be my salvation, I beg of you.
Once again I could hardly hear myself fart or think, but at scattered intervals, when the techno stopped, I talked to the girl I once knew from my second duty station, but whose name I couldn’t place. She had short black hair and generous eyes, was kind and outgoing — that’s all I knew. You see, my brain and all its memory had been made molten by Bad New York or Hong Kong Hamburg, whatever the place was called.
But I remembered Landstuhl all too well, and I re-created it for the girl.
“I miss everything about Landstuhl,” I told her.
“We could walk from the barracks and get anywhere we wanted — no voyages needed in green, tank-like vehicles, and the train station was open-air. I mean, you could still see trees and grass and hills in the distance as the trains cruised by; the trains weren’t crammed into crowded, subterranean tunnels.
“Speaking of tunnels, there was one small tunnel leading to the train station in Landstuhl, passing under some streets; it also led to a couple of nightclubs on the outskirts of the town. The stones of the tunnel, like gems in a ring, were set in the perfection of ancient masonry, and weathered to that poetic dark-gray only time can execute. Between each stone was some kind of moss; it was green and bright, like landscapes in Ireland at sunrise.
“Once, my friend Adam and I ran into a couple of skinheads in that tunnel on the way to a disco. They pulled switchblades on us and started shouting in German, an unspeakable act for Landstuhl. But what’s funny is this — they didn’t have the gall to get too close to us. They were actually trying to rob us or tell us to go back to America from 30 yards away, so Adam and I picked up a couple of chunks of rather large rubble, jarred loose from a walkway platform, and assumed NFL quarterback passing positions. The skinheads de-switched their blades, pocketed them, turned and moved along at a deliberate pace, and shut their mouths, too, before letting loose one or two cursory final outbursts as if to appease their pride. That was the only incident remotely even close to a crime we ever encountered and/or heard of in the town of Landstuhl.
“The bar Adam and I usually went to was called the Kasade, and the owner was Rhiner. He had a couple of rotting front teeth, but it didn’t detract from his friendly nature. He used to bring us ‘meters’ of cola-beer; they were long, handmade wooden boxes, with the smaller glasses of beer on the outside, leading up to two large beers in the middle. The idea was to drink the smaller beers first, working your way to the center, where the last two big beers served as the toast, a kind of icing applied to the finished meter. On the meter boxes and the wooden tables were people’s names, carved in countless languages; each patron of The Kasade for the last 300 years, it seemed. I carved my own name into one of the tables after finishing the final meter of my life, possibly, the night before I left Landstuhl for my next duty station.
“By the spiraling stairwell leading down into the perfect half-darkness of The Kasade was a large, petrified tree, rising up through a flawlessly-crafted hole cut into the floor. There was a ring of bright red bricks decorating the circumference of the hole, encircling the roots. The tree was the color of snow or a birch, and names through the ages were carved into the tree, too.”
I finished my beer; that last bitter drop of watered-down dog piss, as the girl and I stepped out into the locust-like bellowing of the big city traffic and I yearned for a cola-weissen from one of Rhiner’s meters or a small-town fest on a Sunday afternoon.
She took one glance at the chaos and her usual jovial smile transformed to instant sadness and that distant sting of alienation, and so did mine.
Just one customer sat in the shadowy bar, late afternoon.
So what’s new, said the bartender. You still working?
Tina gripped her beer. Nope, she said. I’m retired. You know what that means?
He smiled as he wiped dry a glass. No I don’t — what does it mean.
It means death — no, I’m only kidding –
He smiled as he picked up the next glass.
Good. You had me worried there.
Yeah — this is good beer.
We try, he said.
How come you never ask me what kind of beer I want?
Because I know what you want, he said.
But I’ve forgotten.
Tell me what brand of beer this is.
You should know. You ordered it years ago.
I’ve forgotten, I told you.
You don’t need to know.
She smiled and took a drink. Oh — hey listen, she said, resting her chin on her hand. What are your plans for today?
I’ll be here.
No. I mean after that?
After that I’ll be going home. Marty is taking over from me at five.
Marty? I don’t think I’ve ever met Marty.
Oh! He’s quite a guy. You’d like him.
In what way?
I don’t know. That would be up to you –
She waved a hand. Please!
But really — you ought to stay long enough to meet Marty. You ought to stay until five. It’s four already.
She looked at her watch. It’s five after four, actually.
So it is – anyway — Marty’s got a speedboat. You ought to go out with him on it.
He must have money –
Yeah and he drives a Mercedes convertible — a flashy sporty one.
What color is it?
That sounds cute –
It is — Marty’s got a plane too — he keeps it out at Kupper airport.
God — a speedboat, a Mercedes, a plane — how’s he do it on this salary?
Oh this is just a side job for Marty. He’s got several businesses.
What kind of businesses?
I’m not sure. He never really explained — but he rakes in the dough. He just works as a bartender to decompress.
Is he married?
What’s he look like?
Oh, handsome — very very handsome. Tall, built well, nice hair. He wears expensive clothes too. You should meet him. He used to work for an escort service — lord god he’s got the looks for it.
An escort service?
Yeah. And — he’s a skydiver — he jumps out of planes. Has been doing that for years.
And you say he’s single?
Oh yeah — and I’ve seen him with women — he pours on the charm — he really knows how to treat a woman — money is no object. I’ve seen him buy thousands of dollars worth of jewelry and other gifts — he bought one woman a Mercedes like his. For cash.
Nope — it’s true.
Were these just — women that he met here?
Yeah. Pretty much. I could see him going for you though.
Yes — hang around until five. I’ll introduce you.
What’s Marty’s last name?
I’m not quite sure.
What do you mean you’re not quite sure — you know everything else about him.
You get to know all about people who come in here — but you don’t always know their last names.
But he works here. He’s not just a customer. He works here, and you don’t know his last name? Isn’t this your place? Didn’t you hire him?
He shook his head and pushed out an arm.
No, no, no, look — I’ll be honest with you. I know his last name. He just wouldn’t want it shared.
Wouldn’t want it shared?
Right. He values his privacy. After all, when you’ve got that kind of money — you’ve got to be careful.
Because people will try and take advantage of you. I’ll tell you what — when you meet him, ask him his last name. If he wants you to know it, he’ll tell you. Like I said, hang around. It’s four thirty now.
OK — say what are your plans for tonight? Anything special?
Nope. Home to the wife, and kid — and a big dinner.
What’re you having for dinner?
Oh it’s a surprise — my wife always surprises me.
Is she a good cook?
Oh yeah — and as a matter of fact, so is Marty — he’s a real gourmet.
Yes. Cooks all kind of exotic dishes — squab, and like that.
Yeah. That’s a little bird.
Are you sure?
Oh yeah. Perfectly sure. Maybe Marty will cook a dinner for you. He’s done that for other ladies he’s met here. He’s had them over, had some wine, a good dinner –
And what else?
Oh nothing else. Marty is a perfect gentleman. He would never impose himself on a lady. And believe me — there are plenty of ladies who wish he would. I mean, with his looks, his clothes, his body, his way of speaking — oh when you meet him you’ll be impressed.
Sounds like you’re pretty impressed with him yourself.
I am. He’s someone a man can look up to. A good example. You should see how they’ll flock in here after he takes over — everybody will try and be near Marty — he’s got that — that charisma. And as a bartender, he’s superb — he knows every drink there is. Nobody’s stumped him yet. Wait until you meet him you’ll see — try and stump him.
I don’t usually go for exotic drinks –
Oh, but here’s something else — he’ll talk to you a little bit, size up your personality, then make you a special drink mixed just for you. He does that for all the ladies. Those are usually on the house.
On the house? How do you feel about that?
Oh, it’s fine — he draws such a crowd that in the end it’s all worth it. And here’s something else many people don’t know — he’s a war hero.
War hero? What war –
Gulf war. Silver Star. I tell you, he’s an interesting guy, worth meeting — oh look, it’s quarter to five. He could show up any minute. I tell you, when he comes in the whole place will light up.
I — I can’t wait to meet him.
I figured — and wait until you hear the way he talks — he knows how to talk to a lady — trust me, you’ll never have felt so much like a lady as Marty will make you feel.
How do you know all this? How the ladies feel –
They tell me how he makes them feel. They can’t help but want to talk about Marty. There’s never been another guy like him.
I’m a little bit nervous.
Here’s a fresh beer.
It’s eight to five — he will be here any time now. Oh — and you know what else?
He’s a great dancer. He’s won several dancing competitions. You ought to get to know him and get him to take you out dancing — why, I’ve heard that out at the Willows, when he goes there dancing, the people just gather around in a big circle and watch him and his partner dance, that’s how good he is. Are you a good dancer?
Well — I think so.
Dancing with him will make you twice the dancer you already are — take it from me — I’ve seen him. He’s like a Fred Astaire — hey look — it’s four to five. He will be here any time now. Be ready, though. Sometimes he comes in a little bit early. Likes to freshen up in the men’s room before he starts his shift — he always looks fresh pressed and sharp, hair perfect — and you ought to see his posture — it’s better than a Marine’s. He carries himself like a king.
Wow — you really think a lot of him, don’t you –
Why do you say?
You go on and on like this –
I can’t help it but go on and on about Marty — hey — it’s two minutes to five. That door might open any second –
What kind of cologne does he wear? That’s about the only thing you haven’t told me –
It’s a minute to five. Watch the door.
My God. You –
It’s thirty seconds to five. Look — Marty’s always on time, on the dot.
It’s 15 seconds to five.
It’s eight seconds to five –
She drank from her beer.
It’s four seconds –
It’s half a second to five.
It’s a quarter of a second to five –
An eighth –
A sixteenth –
She sat open-mouthed.
A sixty-fourth –
A one hundred twenty-eighth –
A two hundred sixty-fifth –
And they sat frozen waiting forever in the dim-lit late afternoon bar for Marty, because the time turned out to be always half of a half of a half of a half of the time until five. They waited and they waited and five o’clock never came — and the closer it got to five o’clock the less time there was to speak, to think, to act, about Marty. The less time there was for their hearts to pump and their blood to flow. So they ceased to exist. They froze. They shrank to nothing — trapped in Marty time.
1) Russell sat in the driver’s seat after saying goodbye to his father for the last time. The idling engine sputtered out curls of exhaust fumes that wafted like ghosts through the tunnels of the hospital parking structure. He punched the steering wheel four times and feared a fifth might cause the airbag to deploy, which would probably break his nose, definitely his glasses. He waited until all the other cars were gone before he cried.
2) Demolition of The Berlin Wall started this morning and best friends Ben and Kristi decide to celebrate. Tonight, Ben parks his car on Lakeshore Drive, overlooking Lake Michigan, just north of Navy Pier. The beige car is nearly hidden in the hairy spine of sand dunes and fireweed. They listen to coverage of the destruction on the radio. Ben pulls a flask from his coat pocket, raises it as high the car’s roof will allow and toasts, “To the death of communism.” He takes a quick drink, winces tightly, then passes the flask to Kristi. She drinks without making a toast. The radio continues: crowds shouting We want out! and the thunderous boom of brick turning to dust. Kristi looks out at the ships rising and falling on the water. Like shooting stars, the lights bloom then disappear into the darkness. She thinks about all the families and estranged lovers of East and West Germany reuniting in one another’s arms. She looks at Ben and smiles. She thinks there is hope.
3) You’re alone in your car, speeding out of your neighborhood. Your mother is having him over again, and walking downstairs to that used piece of bubblegum wrapping his doughy arms around her is about the last thing you need right now. You wonder if you should drive to your dad’s house, but immediately you decide not to. It’s already dark and the drive from Waukegan to Cicero is almost two hours. Nearly crying, you pull up to a stoplight and rummage through your backpack for your cigarettes. You think you get your hands around the pack and pull them out, only to find it’s not your cigarettes. It’s a cassette-tape case. Jules, play me. ♥ James. You open the case and put the tape into the car’s player, still mildly concerned that you are unaware of the contents of your own backpack. “Julia” by The Beatles begins to whisper through the speakers. You push the seat back and close your eyes, pretending John Lennon is stroking your hair and singing you to sleep. The light turns green and cars start honking behind you. But you won’t move, not until the mixed tape winds to an end.
4) “Christ, Evelyn, the whole world is changing without us,” Carl grumbled as he threw this morning’s copy of the Tribune down on the coffee table. Evelyn saw the headline and mouthed words Chicago’s – Oldest – Drive-In – Closed – Permanently. “It’s like I told you. First they change the Sears Tower to the ‘Willis Tower.’ Then they close our drive-in. Next they’ll be wanting to change the name Chicago to ‘Idiotsville.’
“I’d like to go there, Carl.”
“The River-Walk,” Evelyn said, looking at her husband with sad eyes. Carl nodded silently, as if out of respect, and they left.
Their Corolla rolled to a stop in front of the large white wall of the River-Walk Drive-In. Only days after its final showing and already the cracked grey asphalt had given way to invading knotweed and peppergrass. There were still buckets of half-eaten popcorn strewn about the parking lot with a few lucky pigeons getting their fill.
“It’s a damn shame.” Carl tugged on the hair below his bottom lip, making a suction sound like sticky feet from a hardwood floor.
“Do you remember our first date?” Evelyn asked with a smile.
“You bet little lady. It’ll be 40 years this summer, God smiled down on this lucky sailor and gave him a trip to the drive-in with a gal prettier than Sophia Loren.” They both laughed.
With the sun going down and the world slowly becoming a sad mystery, Evelyn laid her head on her husband’s shoulder and they both stared at the wall in front of them, as if it were show time.
Maizell lives and writes in New Jersey.
1. In which you dream of birds
Four nights before your birthday, you dream of birds. There are a thousand of them perched in a great tree, their white wings drooped elegantly down their sides and their feathers trailing behind them like wedding veils. They sing a thousand beautiful songs each night, and you know this because they are singing them to you now. But one of them has no beak, and you know that if you catch it, it will grant you a wish.
When you wake up the sky is like frosted pearls, and you know that you must have a bird.
2. In which there are ants in the walls
You have no idea why you didn’t think of purchasing a bird before. It is easily the best idea you have ever had. You can hang out with the bird on your shoulder and feed it crackers and teach it foul language and you simply must have a bird.
But there is one small hurdle to leap before you can get one, and that hurdle is your roommate.
Your roommate’s name is Narandal and she is from Mongolia. You didn’t know that was even still a place that had people in it, but apparently it is because every time you come home she’s right there in your apartment being Mongolian. Narandal is a sweet girl with a round face and dark hair, but she has obsessive compulsive disorder. You think it’s a little weird, but you guess you’re OK with it. You try not to make a fuss out of anything she does. Besides, her OCD means the apartment is always clean, and as far as you’re concerned that is swell.
But it’s also why a bird may be a problem. You will need to go about this proposal very delicately.
When you get home, your roommate is sitting on the living room floor, peering earnestly at the couch. It is white and spotless, as is the carpet she is sitting on. There is a length of yellow measuring tape in her hand.
“Oh! Hello,” she says.
“Hey Nina,” you say. You call her Nina because you do not know how to pronounce her real name. “What’re you doing down there?”
“Oh, the couch, it needs to be two inches away from the wall.”
“Well! You know, there could be ants in the walls,” she says, looking at her hands.
“Neat,” you say. Narandal smiles at you and continues her meticulous calculations. You pause for a few moments before continuing. “So I was wondering, do you mind if I get a bird?”
“A bird?” she asks. Her expression does not look promising. You grapple for a way to get her to agree. You must have a bird.
“Yeah it’s uh, it’s not my bird. It’s for … my friend. She’s going to … Canada. She needs me to watch it.”
“Oh,” she says, “How long will your friend be in Canada?”
“A while,” you say.
Your roommate looks uncertain.
“I’ll keep it out of the way in my room! And she says it’s like really quiet.”
“Well, all right,” Narandal says. Your heart explodes into multicolored confetti.
“OK, cool. You need any help with the couch?”
“No, no. I’m fine,” she says, eyes fixed on the cushions. But you barely hear her. You are already in your room looking up pet stores.
3. In which you have waking dreams
That afternoon you head out to purchase your bird. The pet store you decide on is called Basically Birds, which you think is a bit silly because how could anything be Complicatedly Birds, but you are just an accounting undergrad so what the hell do you know about bird stores anyway.
You park your car in a drab shopping plaza filled with sidewalk cracks and angry mothers. Basically Birds is nestled between a thrift store and an Armenian bakery. The smell of burnt sugar wafts over you as you head inside the shop.
Basically Birds turns out to be a very self-explanatory name. It is basically filled with birds. There are cages of birds on the walls and hanging from the ceiling and standing on the floor and just about anywhere a cage could possibly go. The birds that fill them are multicolored and numerous. Tufts of their feathers wander through the air like flecks of prismatic ash. Some of these birds you immediately recognize: a fat, ruby-red macaw, a slim ivory cockatiel, a shy brown finch. Yet others seem strange to you, the patterns on their feathers complicated and alien. They regard you with wide black eyes when you draw close. You can see your face, awkward and flat, reflected in their eyes’ glassy surfaces, so you stare at the floor instead. The carpet is some kind of brown, and dust puffs out from it in tiny A-bomb clouds whenever you shift your feet.
Eventually the owner of the store shuffles sleepily through the corridor of cages to greet you. With your nose still saturated with the scent of sucrose from the bakery outside, you immediately compare her to a cake. She moves toward you, large and lumbering, as though she may tilt too far and topple over at any moment. Her face is framed by lazy curls of russet hair that spill out from her scalp, her clothes candy-colored and puffy. Her eyes, deep and tired, examine you skeptically before she welcomes you to the store.
“Hi! I’m, uh, I’m here to buy a bird,” you tell her. You find yourself raising your voice to compete with the squawks and chirps around you.
“Obviously,” she says, moseying over to the counter near the door. You note disappointedly that her voice is bored and gray and not very cake-like. “What kind?”
This question, though simple, catches you a little off guard. You didn’t really think about what kind of bird. You just want a bird. You are going to feed it crackers and teach it foul language and train it to bring you tiny objects that you are too lazy to fetch across the room. Who cares what kind it is?“Well, maybe one that can talk?” you venture, “And … that’s friendly?”
“Parakeet,” the store owner responds before leading you over to a tall gray cage filled with small, flashy birds the color of almost-ripe bananas. They flutter excitedly from perch to perch at your approach, chirping pleasantly and preening their feathers. A few of them hop closer and turn their heads to the side to view you with one eye before scampering away again. You decide that parakeets are adorable.
“Which one?” the owner asks.
You lean forward to give the flock a closer examination. They all seem pretty wonderful, but pretty identical too. How does she expect you to choose? You spend a few moments watching them quietly, trying to see if there are any personalities that stand out, but none do. They nibble at their yellow-green feathers and climb up the walls and squabble with each other for rights to the food bowl.
And then you see it.
Hidden away at the very top of the cage, above your head, is a bird the color of a pale summer sky. It is the sort of blue Aztecs wore in beaded flecks in their hair. It’s the indigo-gray that swallows up the sky after a deep storm. It’s the kind of sapphire that splashes up from the sea when it meets an ancient cliff. It is the innocent cobalt of a fresh-picked berry. It is the brilliant cerulean of a cloudless dawn. It is all of these, and yet none of them at the same time. It is beautiful. It is perfect.
“That one!” you say, pointing up at it.
“Huh,” the owner says, “You sure?” You nod enthusiastically.
She shrugs and reaches over your head to open a small latched door at the top of the cage. Several birds scatter out of the way of her hand, but the blue bird does not seem to mind the invasion of its space. She gathers it up in her palms and, holding it gently, removes it from the cage and places it into a small box. You hand her several crumpled bills from your pocket, take the box, and head for home.
4. In which there are two thousand eyes
Three nights before your birthday, you dream of birds. They circle their great tree as a flock. Their fluttering sheds the small, fluffy feathers beneath their wings and these fall around you like snow. You call up to them, asking them to come down and sing for you, but you cannot hear your voice above the discordant ruffling of their wings. They do not land. One thousand white feathered heads turn to look at you from above.
They watch you until you wake up.
5. In which you speak to the wings beneath the sun
Your roommate is not interested in seeing the bird. She is incredibly busy. When you wander out into the kitchen to give your new bird some quiet time, you find that she has removed everything from the cabinets and has set to lining them with very precisely cut lengths of cardboard. She’s good at it, and you wonder where she learned to cut cardboard for lining cabinetry. You speculate over what she did when she lived in Mongolia. Sometimes you hear her speaking in Mongolian over the phone, and you wonder if she is talking about you.
Narandal never speaks to you about her old home, which is probably because you never ask. The one time you did, she told you that her mother had abandoned her when she was very young, and you weren’t sure what to say about that, so then she told you her real name.
“My mother chose it,” she explained, smiling and patient.
“How do you say it? Narndle?”
“Narandal. Roll the R,” she said gently.
“Narrrr-andle,” you said, butchering it as much as is possible.
“Nina is fine.”
“What does it mean?”
Narandal paused a few moments before responding, looking thoughtful. “Sort of like … a pair of great wings spread out beneath the sun.”
“Yes. I think choosing it is the one thing she did right,” Narandal said with a frown, and it was then you decided not to ask again. At the time you meant you’d never ask her about Mongolia, but somehow not talking about Mongolia became not talking about anything at all. You don’t ask her why she thinks there are ants in the walls, or why covering the cabinets in cardboard will keep them safe, or why she scrubs the counters even when they’re already glittering.
You leave her in her life and you stay occupied in your own.
6. In which you wait for silence
After sitting silently for an entire day, your new bird has begun to move. It slides slowly across its perch to examine the toy on one end, and then back to the other side, over and over. It does not seem to be doing anything similar to the excitable fluttering you observed at the pet store, but you are sure that it will take up more entertaining behavior in time. It is cute with fluffy feathers and you are going to teach it foul language and feed it crackers and take it for walks in the bird park, if that is even a real thing. You just need to be patient, as the woman you bought it from suggested.
So you leave the bird to get comfortable. While it settles you work on knitting a hat for your friend’s new baby. You can’t remember if it’s a boy or a girl, so you make it green. You work on a paper for your Auditing and Corporate Governance class. You pick up your room a little while Narandal washes the living room walls. You check your work schedule for the coming weekend. You quietly, and patiently, wait for your bird to notice you.
And that patience is rewarded with a shriek.
There is no other way for you to describe it. Suddenly, without provocation, your bird has begun to scowl and scream. The noise is high-pitched and unpleasant in every possible way. It flaps its long, beautiful wings and clicks its tiny orange beak and shouts and shouts and shouts.
This is not what you expected at all.
You phone the owner of Basically Birds, and she answers in a manner that suggests a recent nap. You picture red velvet cupcakes in the place of her hair as you speak to her.
“Hi, I bought a parakeet from you the other day and it’s making this really loud, squawking kind of noise,” you tell her.
“Yup,” she says. “They do that.”
“What do you mean, they do that?” you ask.
“They do that. They make all sorts of noises. That’s one of them.” She sounds bored with you.
“Well, you didn’t say that before,” you say, confused and worried.
“Yup, well, they do that,” she says again.
“Is there a way to make them stop?”
“Just give it attention and don’t stress it out. Should shout less. But they still do that. It’s one of their sounds.”
“OK. Thanks, I guess.”
It takes another 10 minutes for your new bird to calm down. Its vocal chords exercised, it takes to sitting silently once more. You are left feeling nervous and unsure, and you do not even think about feeding it crackers.
7. In which something is wrong
Two nights before your birthday, you dream of birds. They funnel into the sky like a glorious waterspout, but something is wrong. They are not beautiful and elegant. Instead, they are ragged and afraid. They flee their great tree as though it will bite. “What’s wrong?” you ask them. “Where are you going?” One of the birds lands on your shoulder.
“We have seen one thousand silver suns in the sky,” it says, “and they light the way to freedom.”
“But where?” you ask, watching the cloud of wings above you. “Where are you going?”
You turn to look at the bird and it is gone. The bird with no beak has taken its place, and it cannot speak to you. It turns its head to face you with one eye. It is wide and black and deep, like a chasm that falls down to the center of the earth. You shiver, and find that you can wish for nothing but for it to leave.
8. In which you take the bad luck
Your roommate is too nervous to drive anywhere, so the next morning when she tells you that she needs groceries you are the one to take her. You’re happy to go this time. Your new bird is still having shrieking fits about once an hour and you would be lying if you said it wasn’t a little annoying. You wait quietly as she examines the expiration dates on every item she selects, sometimes rifling through a shelf for several minutes to find a specific one. She blinks nervously at the shelves as though they are plotting to kill her.
When you get back to the apartment, Narandal refuses to go inside. There is a white cat lounging near the door. “We have to wait,” she tells you, grasping your upper arm. “We have to wait for someone else to go near to take the bad luck, or it will be ours.”
“That’s black cats,” you tell her.
“No,” she says, her dark eyes fixed on the animal’s fur. “No, it is white.”
You walk up to the door and shoo the cat away. You don’t think OCD makes people superstitious, so it’s probably just one of those Mongolian things. She probably has all kinds of crazy foreign ideas about bad omens and spirits and junk. Your roommate smiles cautiously at you as you walk inside together.
While Narandal spends the next hour putting her purchases away in carefully measured rows, you go to check on your new bird. It screeches at your approach.
“Hey, shh, shh, relax. It’s OK, little bird. It’s all right,” you say in a voice that could be soothing. The bird only shrieks some more. “Shhh, shhh,” you say. You promised your roommate that it wouldn’t be noisy, and you know she can hear it screaming from your room. You have to get it to quiet down, but it won’t. The more you try to assure it, the more it yells and flutters and squawks.
“Just shut up!” you eventually hiss, but it does not.
9. In which you dream of nothing at all
The night before your birthday you dream of nothing at all, and this is because you do not sleep. The bird will not stop screaming. You are sure that at any moment Narandal will come in to confront you about it, but she does not. Why won’t it stop screaming? It seems to you that it barely even pauses to breathe. It just shouts and shrieks and screeches. You resolve the next morning to take it back to the pet shop. Thoughts of teaching it foul language and feeding it crackers are far behind you. You barely think anything at all. It’s too loud to think.
Your fingers clutch at the quilt of your bed and the sweat of your palms rubs off on the blue-gray pattern of the fabric. Why won’t it stop screaming? You turn your head and yell back at your bird, but it is too loud to hear yourself above its shrieks. It’s too much. You leap out of bed and hurry to Narandal’s room. You need to apologize. She spends her life worrying about ants and cats and dirt and now she has to listen to your new bird and you just can’t stand it. You shove her door open and you are startled to find that she had been asleep. She sits up and asks you something. You know this because you see her mouth move, but it is too loud to hear what she is saying. She gets out of bed and clasps your hands, asking again. But you cannot hear her, and she cannot hear you when you respond. The bird isn’t just screaming now, it’s wailing and howling and squealing and roaring and you just can’t think at all.
You tear back into your room with the sun rising on your back and to your new bird’s cage. Its wings are the blue of old midnights and cold stars. You scream back at it to stop, to shut up, to keep quiet, but still you can hear nothing.
You rip open the door of the cage and seize the bird, its small beak open wide in an unholy outcry. You shake its tiny feathered form, begging it, pleading with it to be quiet, and it is only when small splotches of red begin to dye its indigo feathers that you realize it is dead.
But its screams do not go with it. They cling to your ears and rattle at your ribcage and leap down your throat and you begin to realize that the shrieks are coming from you and it is just too loud to think, so you think of nothing at all. Every sound begins to amplify itself in your mind’s emptiness. Your heart beats staccato rolls of thunder against your chest. Your blood pulses in ocean waves, crashing and roaring on the surf of your veins. Each ear-splitting exhalation that rushes through your teeth comes as a monsoon melody, dripping down into the cavernous bellow that is boiling in your stomach. It reverberates in a harrowing cacophony of sound, jumbled together and leaping from wall to wall, breath to breath, and ear to ear. Your eyes are filling up with the red of disharmony and your hands are filled with blue feathers and hollow bones.
You sink to the floor, surrounded by the remains of your new bird.
It all stops when you run out of air. The sound dwindles into the emptiness of your lungs, shirking away like a scarlet shadow.
There is no noise, now.
And that silence, quietly deafening, is the loudest of all.
A brief debate about debates, complete with all that you would expect. The brevity of the entire affair the most interesting part. Our firm A1 narrative consciousness — or its owner, as it were — is the last to realize that behind the exchange lies a grim bit of reality, that a lack of self-knowledge is no excuse for prevarication, that the quality is one not unlike its own progenitors’ overreliance on jokes.
How did the dog skin the cat?
You sit on a concrete slab awaiting your mother and the drive home following a day of middle school — broken reeds, mathematics, nameless anguish. A truck that is not your mom’s pulls up along the edge of deadened grass. Do You:
A. Keep sitting against the fire door?
B. Go see who it is?
|A. You sit. The August sun beats hard upon your saxophone case. A bead of sweat rols down your brow and you wait for fall.||B. You stand. The truck seems to stretch toward you to come closer. A woman, haggard, leans her head out the window and gazes off. Your mother pulls up behind the rusted-out pickup. Do you:
C. Press on?
D. Get into your mom’s car?
|C. You continue toward the truck, its red-rust dust flaking off in the light August breeze — more like asthmatic breathing than wind. The truck stinks like stale oil and your grandfather’s tool shed; in the bed lies what could be a pickaxe. You smell old cigarette smoke, like the home your Great Aunt lives in — stagnant. The woman spits brown. Do you:
D. Turn around?
|D. You walk towards your mom’s van. “How was your day?” she asks, but you don’t hear her; you’re too distracted by the woman with the crushed-hay hair, waiting — perhaps for you. In some ways she’s the most striking woman you have ever seen. You won’t forget her leather-brown skin even after 12 long years. On the ride home you will ask yourself what draws us to these grostesqueries? Why the fascination with the hideous? You shall do this for the rest of your adult years. You will yearn for the wild and far-fetched. All the while wondering: did you make the right choices today?|
|E. As you approach the driver’s side window, the lady looks up at you and smiles a smile lack 12 of 32 teeth. Right where her eyebrows knit together is a hole. It could be a deep pore. Perhaps. But “hole” seems a more apt way of describing it. You cannot help but stare into this concrete example of infinity. Like sand on a beach, this is the closest you will come to witnessing perpetuity. She says, “I’m waiting for Ryan.”And:
F. You tell her you are Ryan.
G. You tell her you know him.
|F. “I’m right here,” you say to her. You climb into the bucket on the passenger side, all the while transfixed by the hole in your new mother’s eyebrows. Did a needle pierce her face as a child or is her skin swelling to burst with dimness? It does not matter for you as long as you may revel within her misshapenness — enthralled by true loveliness.|
|G. “I know him,” you say. “He sits behind me in band. He plays trombone,” all while transfixed by the hole. You turn away as envy burns within. Ryan know true beauty for it is entangled in his double helix, inherited brilliance.|
Quincy Rhoads lives and writes in Clarksville, Tenn. Find more from him here.
Herein the final installment of Peck’s long-running serial noir. In the previous installment, private eye Harry Jome was running off the rails in pursuit of an elusive truth. At the orchard itself, he was about to meet the proprietor and father of the woman whom he can blame, maybe, for the pursuit — or at least this iteration of it. Things were getting Shakespearean, and they continue thusly…
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I pulled up to the mud outside the cottage. Trees had collapsed all around the square pasteboard building, badly-fitted planks covering holes where windows should have been, and there were hints of light in the cracks. The grass was four feet high except in those spots where some heavy-farming implement had been abandoned. I wasn’t sure why I was waiting for darkness to come. I was drained and tried closing my eyes, but I was too tired for rest. I was too tired for anything, especially this.
Night fell in sharp checkerboard dividends around the branches and squat hills. A playful moon and a timorous solitude made the orchard look quaint and innocent. I waited until the horizon was dark, the motor humming me back to childhood. I noticed streams of chimney exhaust blankly descending into the gravelly sky above.
The orchard brought a feeling I had experienced at my worst moments. Maybe it was a metaphor, but I didn’t think much of metaphors. Besides, the presence of death everywhere doesn’t beg poetry to have much of an imagination. The orchard was a symbol in a drawing, and I was entering that place where a symbol and a reality were difficult to tell apart.
I shut off the motor and got out, immediately breathing in the dread that seemed to have constructed the place. From somewhere near the main road I heard the acceleration of a vehicle, and perhaps the creak of a door opening and not closing. And I heard nothing else but my own footfalls crunching on dead leaves.
I let myself in to the cottage without bothering to knock. The stench of dead fruit had me incapacitated for an instant. I felt at the grip of the pistol tucked into my waistband.
The space was nothing but a wasted accumulation of old tools and sacks full of spilling apples, a compact fusion of kitchen, living room and bedroom. Daddy Longtree blinked at me from behind a table that was really just a long door propped up by concrete blocks. He was eating an apple pie with a butter knife, and there was a lantern in the middle of the makeshift table, providing only enough light to find the lantern itself.
“I heard you out there in your car for about an hour or so. Hope you aren’t scared of me.” Longtree groaned. He had a strand of gray hair combed toward his eyebrows, slight gray stubble that rose high on his prominent cheekbones and close-set dark eyes that were like bubbles on the surface of a swamp.
“I was thinking of being afraid,” I said. “But I decided against it. There’s enough fear in you for the both of us.”
“I’m not afraid of you. I just met you.”
“Right now I’m a little afraid of me. And not to get on a tangent, but what’s that kid’s problem out there?”
“He’s just mean. He’s an orphan. Orphans can be mean.”
I grabbed a chair by the sink and brought it over to face him. He munched contentedly on the spoiled, mold-green pie. Moving things rummaged in the crust.
“They’re going to build a lunatic asylum on my land,” Longtree said. “What should I think of that?”
“They won’t have to look far for inhabitants.”
Longtree smiled, then grew serious and smiled wider.
“I’ve been thinking,” he said.
“That doesn’t sound hopeful.”
“It isn’t.” He scooped a large helping, bending his head and using his free hand to scrape a rogue apple slice into his mouth. Something pried its way from between Longtree’s lips and skittered away.
“We all of us,” he said, “have one day to go back into the dirt. I’m getting a head start.” He scraped what remained of his brown teeth with the butter knife. “It’s around that time when I should ask who you are,” he said.
“Whoever I am doesn’t matter.”
“Are you selling something?” he asked.
“I’m not selling anything.”
“Everybody is selling something.”
“What are you selling, Longtree?”
He lifted his eyes to the ceiling and contemplated the tears in the plaster. “I honestly don’t think I’m selling anything.”
“Who were you with that night at the bar?” I asked.
“That night you were there. Was it Florence?” The overpowering stench of vinegar was becoming familiar and less noxious.
“Who?” Longtree asked coyly. “Who is that? Florence?”
I was beginning to doubt someone and it wasn’t me. “What about Ben Bergen, your son.”
“I don’t have any son,” he said wistfully.
I stared at him as he plunged back into the pie.
“You think that’s a good angle?” I asked.
He peeked at me above a scoop of pie. “I’m not being cagey. I did have a son. Now I don’t have a son. He died off a few years ago.”
“How?” I blurted.
Longtree only shook his head. Frustration was getting a clawing at me. I pulled the pistol out of my pants and put it on my lap.
“And what about your daughter?”
“I do have one of those. Sue. She’s a belligerent girl. Sue has problems. It is a Longtree trait.”
“Sue’s dead too. Drowned herself in a tub.”
Longtree had nothing in his face. “I sort of supposed that,” he said.
“William Florence?” I said. “And I’m not really kidding. Who is he?”
“Yes, Will is an insurance man. He was digging in the Longtree family — something about a policy taken out on Sue by her sleazy husband. It’s possible that he discovered more about the Longtrees than anyone ever had and was planning something. He was coming here to grease his hands. Which is probably what you’re here to do as well.”
“Ever read the papers?”
“I think Florence was the guy in the motel with the bullet in the back of his head.”
“Does that concern me?”
“That depends on whether it concerns you. So Florence got something on you and you paid him.”
“I didn’t pay him.”
“What did you do?”
Longtree breathed and his breath was stale and wretched. “I didn’t do anything.”
“Somebody did something.”
Connections were piling into my head faster than I could sort them out. If Sue was lying about Ben she’d done a nifty job of covering it up by changing the last name and making sure I couldn’t trace it here. Which I did anyway.
Longtree reached under the table and I tensed. The object in his hand was a book and he set it down between us. One apple-encrusted thumbprint was visible on the cover. He sighed. I looked at the flap: A History of Death. By Dominic Early. Of all people.
He said, “It’s loosely based on the history of my horrific family, which you might know something about. All the names are changed, obviously, but it’s a thrilling work. My father was a murderer, as was his father, and his father, etc., etc.” Longtree belched. “There’s no reason in it. Just inheritance of very bad genes, I guess. Every Longtree is a monster. You should be careful, Mr. Jome. They say that whoever struggles with monsters is likely to become one.”
“Who says that?”
“My dead wife, actually. That’s why I’m alone up here. I like being alone up here.”
I crushed a beetle that was climbing up my pants leg and said nothing because there was nothing to say.
“I am the commonest man,” Longtree said. “Aren’t I? Wouldn’t you say that I am the commonest man?”
I put the gun on the table and pointed it at him.
“Sure,” I breathed. I couldn’t stand his frazzled smirk any longer. Longtree only cut another dollop of bug-infected pie and pretended that the gun and I weren’t there. Finished, he bent over and took something off the floor and handed it to me. It was the drawing of the orchard, although in this one the charcoal had been scratched off in places.
“That’s the original,” Longtree said. “I’d like it if you had it. I used to give copies of it to people I respected.”
He paused and licked crumbs out of his facial hair with a wide tongue, laying the drawing on the table.
“I’m glad you’re here though,” he said. “Just to remind me why I’m here.” He gazed longingly at the pie. “I am awfully glad you’re here. I made the discovery long ago,” as though reciting from a fairy tale, without pausing, “that I was a murderer. What made me kill Ben? I had no option. He told me how hard it was for him to function without the urge to kill someone. I don’t think he ever did. But before I stopped telling him it was going to be OK my hands were around his neck and I had no control at all and he just let me do it.” Longtree stared off calmly. “When he was dead I hung him in his garage. First time I’d been away from here. Everybody was sad for me. I was sad for me. Even now I don’t have any guilt or anything. I wonder why that is?”
I slumped back in my chair. He continued to sputter on as he ate.
“I couldn’t have anyone suffer. Ben was going to be a murderer like the whole course of his ancestry and I had to prevent that. And then I did prevent that. I was thinking of his little girl. I was also thinking of everybody else too.”
Now he didn’t use his utensil, but just dug into the pie with his hands and stuffed a mound of apple and insects into his unperturbed grin.
“So now you are aware. You probably would have figured it out sooner or later,” he said. “So how much do you want?”
I stared hard at Longtree.
“You know about farming?” he asked me, pricking up his eyes to meet mine. “First you have to care for each tree like it was a part of your own body. That’s why my orchard is so successful,” he said. “I got 50 pickers at least. I make such a nice apple pie. Mm hmm,” he mumbled. He tapped his ring finger twice on the pie tin. On the third tap his hands and his head dropped at the pistol’s retort. I was mildly surprised that I had shot him. A billow of acrid smoke erupted to the rafters and stayed there. Longtree’s legs twitched, kicking out an absurdly fast dance. He had one last breath to say something pithy, but it came out in a whisper that I couldn’t hear and smelled rankly of bitter almonds. I hadn’t thought death would smell of bitter almonds. There were a lot of things I didn’t know.
On my way out I had to laugh. Because of the Longtrees and my role in wiping the rest of them out, directly or indirectly. Except for the daughter, Dot, who was the last of them. But she couldn’t be a part of this grisly tale. My laughter fell flat in the cramped and anguished room, dying the split-second it pushed off my lips. Head turned to the ceiling, still seated at the table, Daddy Longtree was just a shadow, and not an imposing one either.
For a minute I stared at the drawing of the orchard up close to the lantern, a hint of something important tugging at me, just off the border of the picture. What was it in the dark shapes and swirls that was I missing? My mind was all puckered, waiting. It seemed that it was all right there; the problem was that I couldn’t be sure what “it” was supposed to be, “all” signified, or “there” was. The upturned furniture and the apples were starting to bother me, and so I folded the drawing and brought it with me. I imagined a voice coming from somewhere nearby, looked at Longtree, as inert as an ice sculpture.
The night was warm with the musty smell of imminent rain. Just outside in the grass I unfolded the drawing and peered at it some more. There was still something I was not getting but that was spelled out plainly in the charcoal smudges. Again I heard the muttering voice, the way someone might talk on the telephone from the other side of a thick wall, coming from a batch of tall trees to the east.
I waited with the drawing in my hands, not certain how to handle my delusions, or if they were delusions. For the third time I wound the drawing into a tube and simply stood there listening.
There was no moon, and I was forced to go by what scant noise there was. Owls fluttered and sang, the trees soughed, animals moved about. It took a lot of effort not to think about anything. Underfoot the dirt crackled, and when I had my hand on the car door I heard something I shouldn’t have heard, namely a man’s voice starting to sing a lovely song and then instantly halting the lyrics.
“Jome?” the man said from the trees. “I was just thinking about you.”
I swiveled, fearing for a second that the voice was my own and then fearing more that it wasn’t. I was so sleep deprived I could no longer tell whether or not I was talking.
“Jome,” the person said again from a copse of trees surrounded by a clearing of fallen saplings.
“Who’s asking?” I shouted.
“I am.” The man’s tone was high-pitched, recognizable, though I couldn’t place the cadence, and possibly drunk. “I heard what you did. What’d you do anyway? In there with Longtree? You gone lunatic or something?”
I squinted through the twisted foliage, raising the pistol towards the sound. I couldn’t make the man out.
“Longtree killed his son,” I said. “So I killed him back. The story has a happy ending for everybody.”
“Not for Longtree it doesn’t.”
Neither of us said anything for a minute.
“Which one are you?” I asked.
“I’m Walt Wald.”
“Do you have it figured, Jome? What do you think you’re going to do now that you have it figured?”
“I haven’t really gotten to that part yet. I was planning on getting in my car and driving back to the city.”
“Tonight? That’s a long drive. Maybe you should stay somewhere and start fresh in the morning.”
“Are we talking about something, Wald? This has lost some track.”
“Look, Jome. I’m a private investigator and Sue hired me to watch Lewishom and I just came upon him after you killed him in his car. Not very nice of you, Jome. I know what it probably looks like in Longtree’s and I won’t argue. But I thought you’d let me take you in because you’re going to be in regardless and it would be nice if I could be the one to do it. That’s two dead people. Knowing you I’m sure there’s more somewhere else.”
“Lewishom killed himself.”
“That could be claimed about everybody in a way.”
“That doesn’t sound convincing.”
“That Sue is a crazy bitch,” he said. “Can you believe it?”
“She was,” I said. I crouched low, aiming into the darkness. The moon was sneaking coyly out from a cluster of clouds now and when it did the clearing would be illuminated.
“Why the past tense, Jome?”
“She drowned herself,” I said.
“When did she do that?”
Ahead, the spot where the man was concealed was being slowly lighted.
“I just talked to her little while ago,” the voice said. “That’s too bad. How am I going to get the money she owes me for this?”
“I’m not sure, Wald.”
“I’m not either.”
“She told me she was going to Florida after all this.”
And the moon flared, revealing the clearing and the tall, upright figure that was just a glancing silhouette and nothing more.
“What do you mean Florida?” I asked. “And what do you mean, all of this? What is this?”
“I mean,” he started to say, and just then my gun interrupted him and the silhouette dropped hard with a scattering of twigs. I stood and got into the car. On the way back my headlights swept over the stoned kid from the office. He was wide-eyed and he was running for the cottage. I rolled the window down.
“Kid,” I yelled at him. “It’s a real mess up there.”
His mouth said something and he kept running.
The strong breeze was invigorating and I was suddenly awake.
I returned through the wreckage of trees, all mold and utter sorrow. Nestled into a turnaround off the path a green sedan was parked, belonging, I guessed, to Wald.
I drove too fast, skimming into culverts and narrowly missing a few trees. Maybe I’d killed Longtree to offer some kind of resolution; then again, I could have simply not known what to do. I blamed it on fatigue and confusion. But killing Wald couldn’t be rationalized. Maybe it could.
Additionally there seemed to be a gathering of private dicks out for me. Why had Sue hired all these people and had them follow me and each other? Nothing made sense.
Sue Longtree, I thought, probably deserved everything that she did to herself.
Why anything anymore.
And so Ben Bergen was what he’d always been: a name, and a face I’d never seen.
I was coming down with a rotten head cold, and endured a bout of sneezing while I drove.
I really wished the suit was done already.
Coming into view of Sutter Falls and back on paved roads I was overlooking the lake and the moonlight dinging off the surface. I braked and for five minutes I admired the water and the air, and then I felt stupid and kept driving. It was just past nine.
I passed fields and lonely farmers on tractors inching through the fields.
I was sure that I was being followed, and a moment later I was sure I wasn’t. Then I wasn’t sure. Cars appeared and reappeared in my rear-view with inconstant regularity. I was convinced that both Wald and Lewishom were behind me somewhere in the night, still tenaciously on the case. I couldn’t shake them. Every few miles I pulled off to the side. Twice I thought their respective cars had bypassed me when I was stopped. I learned to stop looking behind me.
The drawing was on the seat beside me and I repeatedly held it to the dome light, looking into the amateur lines for some kind of meaning. Finally I stuck it out the window and let the rush of wind have it.
The wipers were on the whole drive. Twenty minutes away from the city and it was pouring again. At each off-ramp into town I kept driving, until there weren’t any more exits and there was just the highway and the static lights of the highway.
Eventually I turned back. I was obsessing over my tailor and getting mad that the suit wasn’t finished yet.
The city, suddenly — the things and places that were familiar — felt somehow foreign.
At the office a legion of dust stalked the air and settled over the ruins of furniture. The reddish shadow from Parker’s head had dulled to a milky relief, like the pigment you’d see in a Rothko.
An hour and 20 minutes to midnight. Sleeping would have been the right thing to do, but I was too exhausted and too haunted for the idea not to seem like a nightmare. Instead I stretched out under the window like a cat. Ants bustled on the wood near my face, and I felt like drowning some of them in my saliva. The gash in my throat was still bandaged and the sting had gone away but I could feel my heartbeat throbbing in the wound. I pried myself off the floor without any ants being harmed and gobbled a handful of aspirin. From a desk drawer I pulled a tissue, the cold now filling my head and eyes.
I was finished.
In a lunge of exotic dread I was suddenly emptying the contents of the filing cabinets one by one, yanking bygone cases and files and items from the drawers and just piling it all on the floor in a mania I couldn’t explain but for an odd reason enjoyed.
I blamed it on the Longtrees, along with everything else that was wrong.
After 20 minutes I’d tired myself out and sat and watched the neon city bounce around inside the room. The office was now a tangled mess of clutter, a broken mug scattered in the midst.
Maybe I was looking for something and by not finding it I was coming closer to realizing that there was nothing to find. The Longtree fiasco was itching me and I couldn’t do anything about it. What had it been about?
I stood and tried to shake off my brain.
Rain smeared the windows and the lights outside. Then lightning flattered the night in an afternoon glow.
I smiled at the man in the window. He didn’t smile back.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” I asked.
“I got a cold or something.”
“That’s too bad.”
And then I punched the window, but it didn’t shatter and I tried again. Then I tried again and it still wouldn’t shatter.
I looked at my knuckles. At the wall. At the dust. At the broken mug. Everything didn’t feel right.
I was drifting off into a black-and-white dream when the call came in. I thought I recognized the soft-spoken, uneasy voice. “Harry Jome?” the man asked.
“I think so. Let me check.”
“Could you meet me right away? I’m at the diner near your building?” He said it like a question.
“I’m a little busy here just now.”
“It’s not unimportant. It’s about Sue Longtree and some other things.”
“I don’t care about Sue.”
“You might care about these other things,” the man said and wasn’t there. I pried myself into the elevator and got to the diner a minute later.
At a far booth inside the diner a skinny teenaged couple were necking with every part of their bodies except for their necks. Both of them pimpled and as carefree as quantum physics. The place was drenched in artificial warmth. Behind the counter the waitress who’d caused the commotion a few days ago had returned to her job, obviously pregnant and obviously angry about it. The teenaged boy glared at me as though I was his girl’s uncle come to take her home.
The man at the counter was in a gray tweed suit and brown spats. He had a stoic profile. He was too poised and pale to belong there. His salt-and-pepper hair was long and parted and hadn’t been touched by a barber in months. A mustache fit perfectly on his upper lip. His umbrella had fallen underneath his stool, and near his elbows there was a stack of stapled papers.
I wedged into the stool beside him and shook my head when the waitress asked me what I’d have.
“Jome, isn’t it?” the man asked. When he turned his eyeballs were crystals, very blue and very careful.
“You Florence?” I asked back.
“No, but it’s still nice to know you. Sorry about the circumstances.”
“I don’t know what the circumstances are.”
He shrugged. A cup of coffee was pushed off to the side.
“Are you Florence?” I asked. “Or Bergen or some other asshole?”
“I should be somebody,” he said, using his fingers to taper his mustache.
“Whoever you are you’ve caused a lot of stupid dying and I’m the one going to be chained up for it.”
“People sometimes die,” he said casually. “Isn’t it better that it’s for a reason?”
“What’s better for a reason?”
“What I’m telling you.”
“So far you haven’t told me anything.”
“I thought I had. Well, I’m saying that those deaths were kind of not my fault. By the way, how many people have you killed in the past couple of days?” His mustache twitched like it was trying to leap away from his mouth.
“OK. So I don’t know what you have or if you have anything,” I said. “Ben Bergen is dead but used another name and I can’t track down Florence, which is the name he used. And Sue is dead and a couple of nerds called Parker and Porter,” I realized that I was counting the dead on my fingers. “Lewishom. Wald, I think. Maybe even somebody I’ve never heard of.”
The man nodded and bit both his lips at the same time.
“Maybe I’m the guy you’ve never heard of,” he said. “Dean Bruckner. We’re in the same line of work.
“How did that happen?”
“The Longtree lady needed somebody good to follow you and the guys following you and to keep eyes on how it was going.”
“I never noticed you.”
“Because she needed somebody good. I just told you. And I’m a little proud of that.”
“You shouldn’t be.”
“I am though.”
“So what?” I said. “What about Bergen and Florence.”
“I don’t know anything about them but I do know that neither of them has anything to do with this.”
Bruckner’s troubling eyes were mellow with the intensity of brooding over intense things. The light in the room was all crooked, like an origami construction of shadows.
“Ever hear the name Dominic Early?” Bruckner asked.
“I know all about Domoinic Early. He and Sue are the same person. A hack writer of juvenile stuff.”
“I’m glad you know Early is Sue because that’s the big explanation.”
He slid the stack of pages over to me. I flipped the manuscript over. The title was big and blatant and contained five words: The Last Orchard in America. And below that, A Novel by Dominic Early.
“Jome, you were just research for Sue’s latest dumb potboiler and I was the researcher,” Bruckner said. “She hired me to track you around town. She was all blocked up, she said. The case was only for a plot of hers. All she wanted to do was stir things up by hiring a bunch of investigators and see what popped out of the disorder.”
“Is it any good?” I asked without knowing why I asked.
“She’s not a good writer and it has no ending. It does include her suicide though. Maybe you can conclude it if you want to.”
Somewhere within me everything halted. The answer I had was to the question I hadn’t asked. I was so enraged I felt almost weightless.
“So what do you want?” I asked. “You and Sue got away with something. I was a character in her book. I’m not sure what she got away with, but something happened and you must have been causing something to happen. Or else you wouldn’t be here with my phone number in your pocket. So what about Bergen? What about anybody? What the hell went on?”
“The answers are all there Jome. Your problem is that there are no questions.”
“So what do you want, Bruckner?”
Looking at me, he puzzled over how he was going to phrase it. “I thought you should know about her manuscript,” he finally said. “And I also wanted to tell you how bad of a private investigator you are.”
He curled his mouth into a smile that didn’t spread to the rest of his face.
Halfway out the door, yanking up his umbrella, he turned and asked too pleasantly: “Is it ever going to stop raining?”
The horny couple was staring at me and they were frightened at what they saw. I followed Bruckner out to the drenched street. Lightning burned the sky a crimson blush.
It was never going to stop raining.
I had Sue’s manuscript in my hands, and I raised it above me to shield off some of the downpour. I wasn’t going anywhere, if I ever had been.
Another flash of lightning exposed Bruckner conferring with someone under an archway. I couldn’t see who it was. I took a handkerchief out of my pocket and daubed my cheeks and forehead. I looked at the handkerchief and saw that it was moistened with wet gray ink. The manuscript’s print was dripping all over me and I choked a little on the ink as it swept into my mouth.
No, it wasn’t ever going to stop raining.
Standing there soaking on the stoop of the diner I imagined the oceans and the rivers and reservoirs outside of town that nourished the city all breaking loose and ripping apart and absorbing the brick facades and the embellished cornices and the stairwells and small sports cars and vending carts and street signs and deck chairs and expensive dresses. I realized that I hated everything that had ever been. Because it was not going to stop raining.
I conjured an image of my suit and the image wouldn’t leave me. It was a flawless suit, and in my pondering it fit me better than my skin. I wanted that suit.
I walked and walked and there were low voices all around me in the night. Soon I was in front of my tailor’s and my rage was ballooning. His basement shop was brightly lit. I let myself in through the front door and descended the stairs. The room was inhabited by five or six faceless mannequins in various postures. Cramm had his back to me in a monogrammed bathrobe, his black hair disheveled.
“Where’s my suit, Cramm?” I asked, startled by the ferocity in my voice.
He spun around and backed up into one of the mannequins, dropping a piece of chalk. One of the figures was wearing what I imagined my gray suit to look like, white lines running up and down the sleeves and pants.
“It looks pretty done to me,” I said.
“Almost, sure,” Cramm said, fear set in his dark eyes. After a second he said, “The cuffs aren’t sewn on yet.”
I advanced toward him. “I don’t give a damn about the cuffs. I never figured you to be this kind of person, Cramm. I’m disappointed.”
“Sorry,” he said. “But the suit is not done.”
Cramm was shaking when I went by him and tilted my head at the suit. The fabric was satiny. I hadn’t seen a better suit, even considering the white tracings. This suit was the clothier’s version of a ballad.
The tailor was crying and going for the staircase slowly. I pulled the pistol and fired, and the shot caught him in the hip and he fell behind some cardboard boxes.
I lifted the three-piece job off the mannequin and stripped, putting the rain-blanked manuscript on a stool. Removed my pants and jacket and slipped into the smooth seersucker I’d been waiting for. The fit was grand. I took the manuscript and passed Cramm clawing at the bottom stair.
“What’s all this for?” he said.
“For not having my suit done faster.”
“The cuffs still need to be measured,” he said weakly, and then I think he died.
“I like it how it is,” I said.
Soon I was under a streetlight and some men were scurrying around the dark buildings. I turned down an alleyway, glancing back to see some fellow entering Cramm’s shop and gesturing for others.
I felt better with the suit on.
A sirocco wind had sprung up and the bridge swayed over the river, and the river smelled of beached fish and that peculiar lachrymose pungency that water gives off before dawn. It was 4:20. I hadn’t been to my apartment. Hadn’t slept in how many days I couldn’t remember.
There was a barge somewhere off in the night. Foghorns throttled out every few seconds like a slow, dense clock. The bridge was empty of pedestrians and vehicles, the parapet below shaded by trees, the starless-ness of the sky jumpy with accumulating storms. I put two hands on the metal supports and whistled. I hadn’t whistled in a while. The resonance across the harbor was like some lost lullaby repeated from someone I’d never met. I whistled and whistled, a whistling maniac standing on a bridge. Wearing a fresh suit.
I held out my palms. It wasn’t raining anymore. I was glad. I was so glad I upped the volume of my dirge.
And then I wasn’t whistling anymore.
The same is true for the end of a story as it is for the beginning: where do you say it’s done? At the moment all of the various stupid actions make fate inevitable? That moment, however, could have been all along.
Endings are always the same because they’re usually not the same.
Below me, the river clashed with the pale banks, flooded onto the grass of a park. The night was a everywhere.
The ending could have been a batch of spotlights from the north side of the bridge, and the anomalous quietude of daylight shining through the darkness.
Could have been the silence of the men holding the spotlights steady and the displaced whispers of their supervisors.
Or Cowper materializing out of the spotlight, the way you can tell by his posture that he’s serious. Bent cigarette held in between his lips that looked as though he’d forgotten about it since last he’d visited me.
Any ending could be what he said to me on the bridge.
“Why’d you do it, Jome? All those people? Any reason whatsoever?”
Could have been my response, that maybe I was just frustrated with the whole goddamn idea. “I haven’t slept too well lately,” I said. “If only you understand how much of this I don’t understand.”
The end could have been the rain slaloming off Cowper’s hat or the men behind Cowper who were giving themselves shapes in the spotlight.
Suddenly I felt the great thrill of feeling nothing and the feeling was good. And that would have been a partly decent ending.
Cowper approached casually, as though we’d planned to meet here. Some of the men were close behind him. Now that I had my suit on I was ready, and it didn’t matter that the suit wasn’t finished. I pulled myself onto the bridge’s railing, head lowered to the clamorous river.
The end could have been that I didn’t care, or it could have been something as simple as a nod, because these kinds of things usually end on a bridge.
PECK is among more than 40 writers featured in our 2011 10th-anniversary anthology, All Hands On: THE2NDHAND After 10. “Last Orchard…” is his first book-length work of prose.
In this the penultimate installment of Peck’s long-running serial noir, things get, well, Shakespearean, for lack of a better term (if they hadn’t already — in the last installment, our private eye hero Jome’s client took a somnabulatory swipe with a knife at his jugular).
Download “Last Orchard” .doc for your eReader (check back periodically — the file will be updated as new installments become available).
Always the rain. Carol let me borrow the bottle for the night when I left her place around 4:30. Hot and achy, I was also febrile and on the verge of being totally delusional. I’d refused Carol’s offer to call a taxi service. To steel myself for the trek to my apartment I drank tiny gulps from the bottle.
It was already impinging on darkness. Over to the east through a crook in the sepulchral buildings the river was just a sound that carried meekly. Streetlights were snapping on, threw crooked lights onto the pavement. A woman with stringy hair propositioned me in front of the county clerk’s office. I shook my head. Looking back after her I saw that she was not there, recollecting her face as the face of one of my ex-wives. Sure, I was demented.
At 12th Street I leaned against a statue of a city founder that had been erected before the city he founded realized he’d embezzled thousands and had drunk himself to death in one of those stories that keeps getting retold. The same stringy-haired prostitute came back and inquired again if I might like to have a lot of fun. I dug my hands into my pockets and walked on. She walked alongside me for three blocks and receded off with the other phantoms that stalk a man at his lowest.
It took me two hours and 30 minutes to go 30 blocks, regularly a 40-minute jaunt. Where had I been? Walking had become another dream, along with the city, the past and the Longtrees. I buried myself in the bed. Of course I did not sleep. An hour later I was up.
I did what I usually do on a Wednesday night: I boiled three eggs and for minutes I watched them crack and bubble up to the surface. I was jittery, on the border of becoming completely anxious, and my neck ached bad. I was still drinking, but the liquor had ceased working.
Of all people it was Richard Longtree who called to give me the news.
An hour earlier Sue Longtree slid into a relaxing bath with a hairdryer, wearing a shower cap, etcetera. The hairdryer was plugged into a socket and the shower cap was a mystery.
“I pulled her out of the tub,” Richard said in his refined lisp. “She was still twitching. There was soap all over her body if you can imagine that.”
“What was she wearing a shower cap for if she was planning to kill herself?”
“I didn’t inquire.”
“Why are you calling me, Richard?”
“Because I’d like to talk to you.”
“Is that a threat?”
“You were employed by her,” he said sourly.
“I know. That was my third mistake.”
“And I’d like to show you something and maybe you can figure it out.”
“Drop by the office. If you’re hungry I have a few extra hardboiled eggs.”
“Thank you, but I am not hungry. Come by my hotel. The Melancthon. I’ll be the one in the lobby grieving.”
The fact that Sue was dead sunk in when I put the phone down. Too bad. I liked her and her red hair. I liked her red hair a lot. But at the moment I was too transfixed by my own grief to weep over her. Women like her are exquisitely tuned to self-annihilate at a definable point. You don’t have to know when it will be. Just that it will be big and loud. Why I wasn’t able to feel anything for a woman I’d slept with so recently was the real dilemma. I honestly hated her.
I had some more whiskey, emptied out the bottle and stumbled around in the kitchen.
I thought a bit about Sue as the windows cried rain, shucking the eggs and eating them out of the pan.
I stared at the moist yellow yolk in a bitten egg.
Then at the turgid sky.
And back at the egg.
Absolutely no connection.
I threw on a raincoat.
Cowper and a bland-looking uniformed officer were sitting in the hallway on two folding chairs I’d never seen in the building before.
“You bring those chairs with you for the stake-out?” I asked.
“You have egg on your face,” Cowper said in his weary voice. Even his suit looked bored. Bored and wrinkled. And clean.
“Why didn’t you just knock on my door.”
“We wanted to surprise you, Jome. And you having egg on your face is not an expression. There’s egg on your face.”
I wiped the egg away.
“Did Sue leave a note?” I asked.
“Aren’t we investigating you?” Cowper asked. His ever-present bent cigarette was held behind his ear.
“She leave a note or not?”
“You’re kind of forward, aren’t you,” the officer sad.
“Progress tends to go that way.”
“There was a note,” Cowper said, shooting the officer a look.
“What did it say, if you don’t mind.”
“It didn’t say anything, and I do mind. Left on the edge of the tub and the water erased the ink.” Cowper paused, glancing back at the officer scornfully. “There’s something not quite right about anything,” Cowper said. “Why am I thinking that?” he directed at me. “I’m not sure why I’m filling you in, but I suppose it’s because I’m soft. Would you like to explain any of it? Weren’t you with her recently?”
“Where’d you get that?” I asked.
“I’m cursed,” I said, opening my arms wide. “Both my mother and father died during my birth. A few distant cousins, too.”
“You should have been a fucking colonel,” the officer said, and Cowper looked at him like he was going to hit him in the stomach.
“Yeah,” I said. “Or a little compelling.”
Cowper lifted his small frame off the chair and then picked up the chair. The officer followed suit, none to pleased by the act of moving.
“What are we going to do now?” the officer asked Cowper.
“Just shut up,” Cowper said. “Some people would like to know,” he said to me, “what you’ve been doing with the Longtree business. By some people, I mean me. And by business I don’t mean business. How about a chat?”
“I don’t think I have the time right now. I’m going to meet an idiot.”
“Did I mention that the Longtree broad’s hands were tied behind her with her own bra?”
“The woman was indescribable and it wasn’t beyond her to tie herself up. And no, you didn’t mention that.”
“You don’t really care about her, do you?”
“I never claimed to.”
They carried their chairs behind me and down the stairs and watched me from the front steps as I hailed a cab.
The effeminate bandleader was mopping his brow in the hotel lobby, hand resting on a Persian rug draped over the back of the plush couch. Around him frightened bellhops, eager for tips, bustled like billiard balls on a hustler’s table. Wealthy vacationers chatted nearby about how much money they had. Dark red was the theme of the Melancthon Hotel and there were no variations on that repetitive theme.
Richard was wearing a wrinkled tuxedo that did his short stature and shining head no favors. His bow-tie was completely upended, as though it were threatening him.
“Well, Jome, here we are,” he said, rising lugubriously. “Just two thoughtless jerks in a motel lobby somewhere.”
“Good introduction,” I said. “Is there anything else on your mind?”
“How’s my dead wife doing?”
“Have a seat, Richard. You’re going to get upset.”
“Did you get what I just said?”
“Yeah. And I replied that you should sit down probably.”
“It’s isn’t easy to sit down at a time like this.”
“Try it. Sit down, Richard.”
He straightened his bow-tie without any improvement and plunked back onto the couch.
“OK,” he said. “I’m sitting.”
I lowered myself beside him and crossed my legs. Drawn deeply into the tux Richard looked like he was striving to spontaneously combust.
“You look bad,” he said.
“I feel bad. Last time I slept was for a few moments right after your wife tried to kill me.”
There was no surprise in him. “Why’d she do that?”
“She didn’t mean to. I was just nearby.”
“I should feel something, shouldn’t I?” he asked himself, then answered: “But I don’t. I’m too lazy to have emotions of any kind.”
“Are you going to tell me you loved her or something?”
“If by love you mean I liked to see her suffer, then yes, I did love her.”
People were stomping out of the lobby for an evening stroll or a dinner engagement. Whenever the revolving doors moved you could hear a blast of hammering rain. The guy I knew as Sid Lewishom entered the lobby in his blue sweater and corduroy pants, saw me and blushed. Immediately he sequestered himself in one of the phone booths.
“What day is this?” Richard asked.
I thought and I couldn’t think. “I don’t know.”
“Neither do I.” he said. “But here’s something interesting. I loved Sue, I guess, but I really loved her money and I was always faithful, while she was alive, to her money.”
“What money?” I asked. “I thought she was buying fruit with your money?”
Richard laughed a cheeky laugh, separated his lips to say something and let them flap open without talking. I hated him for his weakness and for everything his wife had represented.
“I think I did love her,” he said. “Can I show you something, Jome?”
Richard held out his hand like he was going to escort me to a dance.
“Some etchings?” I asked, getting to my feet.
We rode the elevator to the ninth floor. Neither of us spoke. Smells of cleaning chemicals, deodorizers, wet laundry and Richard’s eau de cologne hugged the air inside his suite. He showed me the bathroom first. A tub full of water.
“I was in the tub when the call came that she’d drowned,” Richard said. “I can’t bring myself to drain it. Isn’t that funny.”
“It depends on what you think is funny.”
“I suppose it does,” he said. “I have never appreciated irony as I should.”
On the desk by the curtained window there was a stack of records on a portable record player and a carton of cigarettes and some keys. Then I noticed the serpentine woman on the bed. She was tall and fair-skinned, with explosive blue eyes and legs that could have touched the bottom of the ocean.
“Who’s she?” I asked.
Richard squatted down beside her and ran a handed through the girl’s auburn hair. “She’s just a whore,” Richard said.
“He likes to watch me have sex with myself,” the girl said in a cute, sighing voice, the voice of a sweet girl trying too hard not to be a sweet girl. “I’m trying to be an actress and he says it’s good practice to have people watch you doing embarrassing things.”
“She’s trying to be an actress,” Richard explained. “And I did tell her that once or twice. She listens and she’s a good girl. Aren’t you a good girl?”
“I’m a pretty good girl,” she agreed. Richard’s small eyes shone when he stared at her.
He went to the sideboard and poured bourbon into two glasses and dangled one in front of me. His hands trembled and some of the whiskey splattered onto his black loafers. It was painful to swallow but I drank it down regardless. Richard lit a cigarette and wedged it in the ashtray he was carrying. Then absent-mindedly he lit another, set aside the ashtray, and loaded the second one into a fancy pearl holder.
“I may quit the music business,” he said.
“That sounds like it would be to the advantage of the music business,” the girl said and turned over on her side away from us.
“You’re being rude,” Richard said to the girl.
“You never let me leave this room. How am I going to become an actress if I can’t leave this room?”
Richard smoked daintily, like a puppet would. He stared into his bourbon.
“So what is it?” I asked him.
“Just this. You asked about Sue’s money. Where she got it.”
“Have you ever encountered the name Dominic Early?”
I wasn’t used to being surprised. “Constantly.”
Richard puffed in a self-satisfied manner on his cigarette. The smoke was enveloping the room. The girl on the bed waved her arm to disperse the evasive clouds.
“Sue is Dominic Early,” Richard said. “That must be worth something to you.”
“It would be if I knew what you were talking about.”
“Early is a pseudonym. Sue’s a mystery writer. It’s actually pretty bad stuff but people like pretty bad stuff and it sells well. That’s why I hired those fools to tail you. Thought you and Sue were cavorting, if you know what I mean.”
I set the glass down on the table.
“You’ve known it for a while?” I asked dumbly. “About Sue being Early?”
“Quite a while,” he said. “I thought maybe I could use it against her. There must be some money involved in the information.”
Something shipwrecked inside me. In one motion I snatched the cigarette from his confused mouth and stuck it in my own, and as his eyes glazed over in stupidity I hauled back and caught him in the nose and heard a snap. Contorting for a soft place to fall, Richard tottered and I got him again and this time he brought the radio to the carpet with him, switching on a Beethoven sonata, one of the late ones that I especially adore. I pressed him deeper into the floor and I hit him in the back of the head, again, and then again, and he was limp under my weight so I hit him again, so rapidly it sounded like someone was urgently knocking on the door. And I hit him again.
I was breathing hard and he wasn’t breathing at all. Setting him gingerly on the bed I saw that the girl was looking at me. I picked up the radio and brought it down on his head and the radio shut off. The girl wasn’t afraid. She was turned towards me, frowning at Richard’s crumpled head.
“Richard?” she said. Noticing that he wasn’t going to be getting up again, she swept the hair out of her eyes and said, “Are you a producer or something?”
“Sort of, yeah,” I said. “What’s your name?”
“Gwenn,” she said.
“I’m sorry you had to be here.”
“I’m sorry wherever I have to be. But I’ve seen worse, so don’t expect me to be shocked.” She got off the bed wrapped in a transparent sheet and slipped on underwear with the sheet still around her. I watched, transfixed by her slim, senseless body. I was thinking of Sue, but not too much. “If you knew how much worse I’ve seen you’d be sorry for believing I feel bad about this.”
“You look good,” I said.
“I have to,” she said.
“How long have you been here?”
“Couple of days. Five, I think.”
“Did you like him?” I asked.
“The man on the floor.”
“He was OK,” she said. There were bruises on her back and some on her arms.
I told her to finish getting dressed and she went into the bathroom with a bundle of clothes. After five minutes of watching him intensely, I was confident that Richard was dead. Also that my fever had returned. I poured another glass of bourbon and swallowed it fast.
The girl reappeared in a light blue dress with white polka-dots, hair pulled back with a clasp, black heels that displayed her hardened calf muscles. Clothed, holding onto a white purse, she had the bearing of a depleted wife. Pretty, but not so pretty as to be annoying. I liked her instantly.
“This was a good meet — cute,” she said.
“I guess,” I said.
“Thanks for what you did,” she said.
I nodded and she nodded back.
It was too soon to feel anything other than an escalating calm that nudged me light-headed to the elevator, the girl clasping my arm. A porter was reading some financial reports inside and he was doing his best not to notice me or the girl and maneuvered the buttons without looking up.
In the lobby I turned to the girl, who was oddly satisfied. “You have a place?” I asked.
“I’ll find one,” she said.
I left her in the lobby.
I didn’t pack anything except for my pistol. Before I left I called my tailor to yell at him. The suit wasn’t ready yet. I went down to the parking garage below my building — the kind of place you have to sneak into to retrieve your car. Some trivial gangland characters in torn leather jackets were exchanging money and handshakes and ignored me.
The antique Buick was dark blue, highlighted with motifs of rust. I sank in behind the wheel and the engine woke fine. I wanted a quiet drive; sadly the radio wouldn’t shut off, and only tuned to a big band station. I blew a layer of dust off the dashboard and put the heap in reverse. Getting to Sutter Falls would take about seven hours. Now it was just hitting on 10:30 a.m. on a plain Thursday.
The morning was chilly and alien. I’d rarely left the city to fend for itself, and I worried about it for a minute. Outside of the city there were hardscrabble houses buried in junk and mounds of wheels and general debris. An hour after I left the rain snapped off and the sky was bluer than I had ever seen it. I was dozing and swerving off the dirt shoulder of the back road, windshield wipers waving extraneously. I stuck my hand out the window and cranked the radio, some over-the-top Benny Goodman stuff. Gearing onto the highway the world abruptly changed from coarse gray to brilliant gray. There were trees and grass and surprises like those. Hills tapered off into valleys and the valleys into mountains.
I couldn’t explain it. I didn’t like the change. Nature had always made me feel the anonymity that the city hides in noise and spectacle.
Sometime before five I was passing the billboard: SUTTER FALLS WELCOMES AMERICA, set in furious yellow print, as though the invitation hadn’t been reciprocated.
The hamlet was clenched in a hushed valley. Distant church steeples pointed at an innocent sky, competed with the exorbitant number of water-towers. Even in advance of reaching town there was a languor you could have sprinkled on cold chowder.
Behind me a green sedan slowed when I did. I couldn’t remember whether it had been there since I deserted the city. I was tired and paranoid, but especially I was tired. Soon, the green sedan wasn’t behind me anymore.
The first establishment I met in Sutter Falls was a low bar with a dirt driveway and one pine tree, called The New Place. On its sign was an oversize moose, its tail mechanically wagging in neon. But the town’s nucleus was a row of storefronts evacuated of any buyers or any marketable charm. There was a pawn shop that doubled, as if on second thought, as a grocer’s, and a barbershop and another barbershop right beside the first barbershop.
No traffic even at that early hour, and the three stoplights in town were all blinking yellow. A family of five was rocking in rocking chairs on a porch stoop, watching me as though I were the World Series. Farther down, a black dog wandered into the street.
The difference between Sutter Falls and a ghost town was a flimsy interpretation.
My motel seemed to be the only one around, wedged in between the bus depot and an ambiguous stone structure that was either what the local masons did for a joke or some site of dubious worship. In comparison, the neon glitter of the motel looked to have been dropped there on a flight to Atlantic City.
The Belgian manager was glaring angrily at a pornographic magazine as if the model was his daughter’s best friend. Long gray hairs sprouted from the unbuttoned parts of his print shirt. Underneath the desk he grappled for a second and I heard the sound of a zipper, standing at the same moment as his pants were pulled up and belted.
“Room?” he asked skeptically. He was broad and appeared to be either slightly dumb or very smart. His graying mustache drooped as though it were wilting. One huge ringed finger employed the hunt-and-peck method on a clipboard clamped with sign-in forms. From the pocket of his tan wool cardigan he produced a cheap ballpoint pen.
“We had a conversation,” I said. “I need the room that William Florence stayed in.”
“I recall explicitly our talk.” He tended to his mustache while he unhooked a key from a little peg. I handed him some twenties.
“Sixteen,” he said, “will be your room. My favorite number. One night?”
From somewhere behind him I could female giggling. He smiled at me deviously.
The staircase was a black crisscross of lines and railings. I wasn’t exactly sure why number 16 would be on the third floor. I heard footsteps above me, but when I halted the footsteps did too.
Room 16 was stuffy and cruelly decorated. A big rectangular reproduction of an 18th century fox hunt hung behind the bed, its lowermost frame hidden by the headboard. Someone had obviously gone through a lot of trouble to scour Sutter Falls for misused furniture and unload it fast. A rickety white card table was unfolded and circled with coffee-cup stains. Out the window there was a clear view of the bus depot and the people waiting there. I snapped the curtains shut. Somebody had left their dark suit in the closet.
Random filaments lined the bedside drawers: a Gideon Bible, unfinished scraps of love letters, a black, balled-up sock, one bottle of antacid tablets and a green, hardened slice of white bread. The telephone and the radio were chained to the lamp and neither worked.
I tried lying in the bed without touching the bed. One of the pillows had the scent of having been used as a hobo’s death shroud. I closed my eyes and suddenly sprang up to see that I had been asleep for less than two minutes.
Around seven I unwound the bandage in the bathroom and soaked it in the sink and wrapped it back on. The mirror was grimed with what appeared to be an erased message written in lipstick. Bergen might have studied himself in the mirror before hefting the certainty of a fully loaded gun.
Pacing the terrible room I leafed through the Bible, that first, monstrous piece of detective fiction. Those dead prophets were all trying to uncover the biggest clue, god, and when he couldn’t be found anywhere they imagined him everywhere for the sake of simplicity. I lifted the painting off the wall and traced the cloudy, badly painted splotch beneath it that was the end of Bergen and his promising golfing career. I stayed in bed for half an hour, listening to the pipes of the motel and the craven whisperings of an emptiness that wrapped tightly around me.
How long had it been since I’d slept?
I needed a drink so bad my hands were going clammy.
Down by the front desk the sounds of heavy intercourse were a zoological event. Walking to the bar I’d driven by earlier I was aware of someone behind me, as though the person were wearing metal-bottomed shoes and was proud to be in them. Every time I doubled back I spotted no one.
The New Place was well abandoned when I got there. At the far end of the bar there was a tall man with a red beard. His fancy cowboy boots were next to his stool. I sat at the bar and after five minutes the barman toweled off the counter in front of me and I ordered a coffee with a little whiskey thrown in.
“Really?” he asked.
Off in a corner a slick-haired dwarf was playing a guitar very low, just brushing the strings like he didn’t want anyone else to overhear, gently tapping his foot to get the rhythm right. After a few moments a couple of tall fellows showed and set up drums and an upright bass and started to fool around with the dwarf’s melody. The small guitarist glared at the men, stuck his guitar in a black case and hopped onto a stool near me and pouted. He started haggling with the barman about the prices and wouldn’t relent until the barman shouted at him to quit pouting. Then the man apologized and left.
Bringing me the concoction, the barman said, “This looks a little harsh. Our coffee is terrible and our hard liquor warps wood.”
“I’m feeling a little harsh tonight.”
“You’re entitled to your feelings.” The barman was a short guy in a sailor’s white coat. When he turned I asked what he knew about Daddy Longtree, and he shrugged helplessly.
“He came in here a while ago often enough.”
“Yeah. Two or three weeks ago, I guess. From what I heard he wasn’t too social.”
“And what did you hear?”
“That he wasn’t too social.”
“What’d he come in here for?”
“To drink with another guy.”
“When was that?”
“A week or two ago.” He slung the towel over his shoulder. “You seem interested,” he said.
“I’m only pretending.”
“Longtree is a weird one.”
“Why do you say that?”
“He acts funny. He wouldn’t drink his beer when the man he was with bought him one. He wanted hard cider and we don’t sell hard cider so he didn’t drink anything.”
“So what did he do?”
“He didn’t have any hard cider.”
The barman started scrubbing the counter with a blackened cloth. I ate a handful of stale pretzels from a paper bowl.
“Why’re you asking?” he asked.
“I was hoping you’d tell me.”
He mopped the counter some more.
“He just acts funny,” he said. “I know who he is because he used to come in here all the time. Lately he’s just a stranger.”
The bearded man at the end of the bar moaned.
“You know anything about his son?” I asked.
“Ben Longtree?” The barman nodded, solemnly.
“Not much. Poor guy. Finished himself, I guess.”
“How about William Florence?”
The barman contemplated. “William Florence sounds like a name I should know.”
“But you don’t.”
“Yeah, but I don’t.”
I reached in my pocket and clawed out $35 and put it down. He stuffed the money in his pocket. “I’ve still never heard of William Florence,” he said.
“What’d the guy look like that Longtree was meeting?”
“Tallish, dark hair, I think. He wore a watch fob, I remember, and looked queer.”
Refilling my glass, the barman said, “I don’t know what it was about.”
“Could you guess?”
“Why would I guess?”
“Because I need to know.”
“All I can tell you is that Longtree didn’t look pleased.”
The door to the place swung out and Lewishom poked his large head in, saw me and poked his head back out. I drank the rest of my drink and went out. The guy in denim was across the tree-lined intersection on the opposite corner, where a men’s clothing store was unlit except for a man in an upstairs window examining his fingernails. I ran and caught up with the goateed man and grabbed his arm. He didn’t resist.
For about two minutes we stared at each other. The shopfront window was stuffed with mannequins in various postures of abandonment.
“Call me Lewishom,” the man said in a subdued voice. “Because that’s my name.”
“You already told me once. How about I don’t call you anything until you tell me what you’re doing around here?”
“I don’t know what I’m doing.”
“What do you think you’re doing?”
Lewishom shrugged. The neckline of his blue sweater was frayed, and his gray hair was straight back. Out in the night there was nobody around. The sounds were mostly faraway predatory animals and the creaking of old buildings.
“Sue Longtree?” I asked.
He nodded again, sorrowfully, like he’d just divulged a paltry secret. “Look, Jome. I don’t know what it is I’m supposed to be supposing. Just to follow you and keep tabs and that isn’t a whole lot of much.”
For the third time in less than a minute he bunched up his shoulders and gave me a doleful smile, lapsing into silence. A clock somewhere struck nine and when it stopped clanging I could hear a train rushing through the dark.
Lewishom was looking remotely at the mannequins, pursing his lips and then licking them.
“The wife left me,” he said, “and I’ve been in love with this unattractive burlesque dancer who doesn’t know how much, or at all. I used to go by the club and watch her and act like she was dancing just for me. I thought maybe this gig would cheer me up, but it hasn’t and it won’t and I’ll not get that girl.”
Lewishom spit on the sidewalk and gazed at his saliva. “We’re funny,” he said. He was still shrugging every other second. “I don’t know, Jome. Someone told me that everyone is like a carnival. You ever been to a carnival at two in the morning, when it’s closed? It’s the loneliest place on the earth. But I never really realized what that person meant until I went to a carnival. And even then I still didn’t really get it.” He shook his head. “I just don’t know, Jome. I’m drunk on three-dollar gin so I’m not thinking too well.”
“What are you going to tell me?” I asked.
He pointed at the window. “Those dummies have it made,” he slobbered, and he turned unsteadily to a Ford parked beside us and got into the passenger seat. I started walking back to the motel, thinking he had nothing for me and was just one of Sue’s extra men. I made the mistake of looking back at the Ford. The dome light was on and Lewishom was bent digging for something in the glove-box. I couldn’t see what it was until he raised it and pointed it at the side of his head. I waited, immobilized and expectant, for 10 minutes. Then I stuck my hands in my pocket and left Lewishom and his scene alone.
It wasn’t until I was fumbling for the room key that I heard the shot ring out. I paused for a second and let myself into my room. And I paused again once I was inside the room and leaned back on the door. I wasn’t acquainted with Lewishom, but now I felt as though I knew his every monologue.
I ran a bath later and just sat in the tub for several hours, my head rolling back into the porcelain tiles every now and then for a second or two of unintended rest.
I was up all night pacing the confines of the room. So far the whole thing was aimless. I’d accomplished nothing in the Longtree case except for driving my client to suicide, regaining my hankering for drink and managing to have been awake for the past couple of days. But I wouldn’t be OK again unless this mess could be proven to have some kind of plot, a moral for what precisely I thought I was doing. Unfortunately, real stories don’t have morals, or plots.
I puttered around the room for a few hours, conjuring any angle that would allow me to get out of Sutter Falls. It was no use. I had to push through with Daddy Longtree and the orchard.
Down in the lobby the next afternoon I had a black coffee in a cracked mug. I pressed the bell, glancing at the yawning ledger that had been opened on the front desk. My signature was second from the bottom, and facing it on the adjacent page was that of W. Florence in tidy, feminine cursive.
The Belgian manager came out of a backroom. Two female voices were berating him with foreign vitriol. A weariness had settled all over the guy and I was a little sad for him. He closed the door quickly, stood facing it pitifully for a moment, and came over.
“Know where I can get some apples?” I asked.
“Is that truthfully what you have called me out here in order for?” He pulled an unkind face. “Did you not hear those women?”
“Who are those women?”
“There’s a grocery store three blocks down on Front Street. I’m sure they will have the apples you are looking for.”
“Isn’t there an orchard somewhere around here?”
“Longtree Orchard,” he said, surreptitiously eyeing the backroom. “But it’s nearly closed. The gift shop belonging to the orchard is straight for a half dozen miles and the orchard itself is a few more, I believe.”
I put my room key on the counter. The Belgian turned and stared at a calendar tacked to the wall. February 9th had been circled and then crossed out severely and repeatedly. He hung the key with the other keys. Reluctantly he went back in with the women and I caught a better look at them: they were overweight, dark-haired twins blotched in too much eyeliner and wearing maid’s gray smocks. They were frowning in tandem, ready to pounce. The Belgian watched me as he shut the door, his eyes pleading for assistance.
I had my own troubles.
Brisk lake air hit me in the eyes. The sun was out and it was an obnoxious glare after so long without a whiff of sunshine. Sweet blossom infused the wind and had the torpor of childhood prowling about it. From the glove-box in my car I found a pair of dark glasses and strapped them on. Across the unlined road there was a restaurant with a dangling, hand-painted sign featuring a tottering farmer. I went in and had pancakes, an egg and three cups of black coffee.
For five miles I drove north under a canopying forest that shut out the sun. According to my watch it was 6:42. The gift shop was on the main road, a rustic, log facade the size of a duplex. One of the triple garage doors was slightly lifted to reveal a gaping interior. Crates were stacked in the yard in disarray, and off to the side in a small pasture was a classic red pickup truck, tailgate rusted off, the tires flat. It was either the epitome of America or its thorough derision. The lake glimmered out of the high birch trees. Paddles muscled through the water, skiffs and speedboats dotting the shores.
But the shop was about as wholesome as lice.
I noticed a set of initials carved in the butt of a log in the front yard, bearing a time and the date, February 9th, below.
The orchard was a sprawling, tangled expanse of neglected trees clutching at brown apples. A broken fence spanned the grounds, rooted by posts nailed with paper arrows pointing ahead.
The shop’s single, rustic room was decorated in framed awards from a dozen years back and canisters of spent pesticides. Little packets of seeds and wood chips were scattered across the floor. There were decomposed apples everywhere.
A young man with bristles of black hair sat on a stool behind the metal counter. He was wearing gold sunglasses and I couldn’t tell if he was asleep or just lazy. The frazzling white light of a vintage television set flashed around him, but he was not looking at the picture.
“Guess who?” I asked loudly.
He didn’t move and his soft face was inflexible.
“Is your Daddy home?” I asked.
“Daddy’s always home, motherfucker. You know,” he said warmly, “you remind me of someone I wouldn’t like?”
“There’s more of me back in the car.”
“You look tired as hell, pal. Maybe you just need to get some sleep and everything will be fine.” The kid slouched forward and licked the paper of a marijuana cigarette he’d apparently been saving for the occasion.
“So?” I asked.
“What happened to your neck?”
“I’m starting a fashion trend.”
“It looks awfully terrible.”
“They all do in the beginning. Where’s Longtree?”
“He sold the place a week ago. It’s not on the market.”
“I’m not buying.”
“It’s going to become a retreat for wealthy, almost insane people.”
“You’re repeating yourself.” He didn’t get the joke and I wasn’t sure there had been one. “Where is he?”
“At the cottage.”
“Where’s the cottage?”
“Far end of the dirt road.”
“Where’s the dirt road?”
He jerked his thumb over his shoulder.
“Did you see that dirt road on your way up here?”
“It’s not that dirt road. It’s another one.”
“Which dirt road is it?”
“The other one.”
He lit the joint with a match and the flame sputtered in the lenses of his shades.
“It’s the dirt road going north. But you’ll have a hell of a time getting up there. We’ll be out of here in a week, so you better get your business done fast.”
“Sorry to hear that.”
“Why’re you sorry?”
“These days I’m sorry about everything I hear.”
“You must hear a lot.”
“Not nearly enough. I appreciate all the work you’ve put into this,” I said. I handed him a crumpled five dollar bill. “A little something for your trouble.”
“Thanks, but I’m not going to thank you.”
“You’re welcome and you just did.”
“I didn’t mean it,” he said. “Sorry.”
I took a peek at the TV; it was nothing but static.
Back in the car I drove underneath a ratty wooden sign that had been eaten away and over a gradual incline of jutting boulders and hidden dips in the path. Dirt lanes ran the length of the orchard, intersecting, abruptly dead-ending, traversing the hills. All leading seemingly nowhere but upwards. I chose one at random. Liquefying apples popped under my tires, spraying sickening geysers at the windshield. Even with the windows down the vinegary smell of rot was pervasive.
TO BE CONTINUED…
PECK is among more than 40 writers featured in our 2011 10th-anniversary anthology, All Hands On: THE2NDHAND After 10.
In the last installment of Peck’s noir, private eye Harry Jome cases the identity of two fellow businessman who have been following him for the better part of the tale — goons hired by his client’s husband as part of divorce proceedings. As of the beginning of this installment, one of the goons is dead, and Jome’s intimacy with the client, Sue Longtree, continues. After this: only two installments remain — stay tuned.
Download “Last Orchard” .doc for your eReader (check back periodically — the file will be updated as new installments become available).
There was a circus of Longtrees in my dream, some in period costume and others current, segued and dark-eyed, ready to slaughter one another at the drop of a glance. I was ignored by them all. They’d congregated in a vast, dead field where indeterminable fruit was being harvested, packed into crates lain waiting in the rears of white trucks, and driven off with a groan of antique engines.
I wandered among them, searching for Sue, wholly lost in the enormous, apparently endless orchard that had borne every single goddamn one of them and looked to be in some kind of golden age.
One youthful Longtree drank vinegar from a clear glass cup.
Another was plucking grass and eating it.
And a third, a woman, watched me longingly from the restive spot under a tree.
I counted the rough patches of cloud overhead. The horizon in every direction — a blisteringly red sunset — was obviously as fake as a Hollywood backdrop. Brushstrokes could be seen clearly, and streaks of paint dripped down from the convex sky, forming puddles at the base of this fake world.
For a dreamscape, it was the work of a dilettante craftsperson with not a whole lot of expertise.
On the other side of the field a figure of stooped shoulders mourned inaudibly. It was Sue. I approached her and saw that she was cutting desperately into the skin of a dull red apple with a razor-blade. Her grin fairly jumped off her face. Then her lips compressed and her frown was as dismal as a trench.
“Does the breeze have a kind voice?” she asked.
She kept slicing through the flesh of the apple but there was nothing inside and soon she was empty-handed, pouting, counting something in the air, and then she was pointing at my throat with a look of horror.
Liquid was spilling across my neck towards the back of my head. I blotted the spot, trying to make it ebb, but the warmth was relentless.
Then something happened.
I woke panicked. The ceiling was drifting away into a recklessly speeding fan that I could not follow. I tried to keep my eyes fixed on a single rotor but lost it in the distant whirring motion.
Sue Longtree was straddling me; her eyes were shut tight, mascara and tears staining her cheeks. I felt the razor digging into my neck, gliding effortlessly towards my adam’s apple. I was in shock, more from the disturbingly tranquil expression on her face than the fact that she was cutting my throat open. A rush of hot blood streamed around me, wetting the sheets. She was parting me very slowly and carefully. I shifted but she wouldn’t budge, then I tried pushing her away, but her dead weight was immovable.
I had her wrist and slapped her with my free hand, and then I slapped her harder. Weakness was slopping all over me like a newly bathed animal, subduing me totally. I thrashed and I yelled and stammered. Still she slept and used the razor-blade. Soon I was only gagging and sputtering epithets.
Dying is just the fear of dying. I savored and chewed my breath as though it were poisoned oatmeal.
The final image that would throw me into the Questionable would be a somnambulist woman carving her initials in my neck and the ceiling fan like a cryptic halo above her red-hair.
Finally I socked her so densely in the side of the head that my knuckles or her cheekbone cracked, and she toppled off the bed with a flicker of green eyes, giving me another valedictory swipe of the blade as she was pushed off and landed on the floor with a thud and a little shriek that was uttered in a voice that didn’t belong to her.
I rolled onto my stomach, stanching the wound with the pillow. Things once clear in the room were becoming disconcertingly imprecise. The clock was a tiny explosion of numerals, the furniture just billowing wooden figures, the whole room a rotating womb with no solution. Trying to stand I fell into the nightstand, stuttered a few mumbled phrases, and was out well before the hardwood floor caught me.
While I napped in the comfy embrace of dying Sue had tied one of her husband’s monogrammed handkerchief’s around my cut neck. The bleeding had temporarily stemmed, leaving behind a lacerating pain that killed any urge to wonder very lucidly. Fifty-one percent of that pain was from rage. With her unwanted help I staggered into the bathroom, bowed my head into the spotless sink, and washed my face with miserably cold water.
“Go away,” I told her when she put a hand on my shoulder, “This is not a good time,” and she went away. In the mirror I watched her getting back into her bathrobe, and her body was all lust for a second, and then it wasn’t anything.
Carefully, I unwrapped the tourniquet so that the clinging fabric didn’t jerk my skin off. I soaked the grinning gash with a cupped hand. The agonizing tang of water lasted awhile. I gripped the faucet with my other hand to steady myself. I stood at the sink for five minutes, my mind amok, trembling, unable to think well.
She came into the mirror in her bathrobe looking worse than I did, her left cheek a wheel of greenish brown, top lip cracked and bloated. Red strands of hair stuck to the glib sweat on her brow.
“You could have at least used shaving cream,” I said. She was crying now and trying to hold back the tears skittishly.
“I’m sorry, Harry,” she said, sliding two arms around me. I slipped out of her reach and into the bedroom, scrutinizing her disconsolate reflection from a freakish angle and pretended that I wasn’t going to pass out from the pain, from perpetual lack of sleep.
“I’m sorry for how you must be feeling right now,” I said. Neither of us were dazzled by my clever parlance.
She was all pinched up, scowling like a dog. I hunched forward on a footstool, gathered my shoes on. I tied the laces as though I were focused on some algebraic problem that had been baffling men for centuries.
“I was sleeping when I did it,” she breathed. “I couldn’t know what I was doing. Now you know why I hired you.”
I got my shoes laced and realized that they were the only clothes I’d put on. My ratty suit and trousers were scattered in the sheets and I quickly untangled them and dressed brusquely.
“That’s no excuse,” I said. “And I only half believe you. I knew you were a bitch. I didn’t know why. I still don’t know why.”
“I can’t help it,” she said. “I had a dream that I was doing it and I awoke and I was doing it.”
“I’m through,” I said, zipping my pants. “With you, I mean.”
“Keep the money.”
“I wasn’t considering not keeping the money. But I’m not quitting yet. This scenario is going to be solved whether you like it or not.”
“There isn’t any solution,” she said. “It’s gone on long enough.”
“What’s that mean?” I grabbed her roughly by the arm and shook her. She wrenched free and sat on the bed, head bowed, hands splayed on her knees.
“I don’t mean anything,” she said. “I’ve never meant anything.”
“What’s gone on long enough?” I asked.
“You’re not making any sense, Ms. Longtree.”
Sue burst into a crying fit that lasted a few seconds. It was strange not to feel remorse or a pang of sympathy for the woman, but I felt neither. Not even curiosity.
“So now you know about yourself,” I said. “You like to murder people in their sleep after sex. Like the rest of the Longtrees, apparently.” I paused and gave her my worst scowl. Her sobs were coming in short huffs. “So you know. So now what?”
Sue raised her head, searching my face for some kind of reassurance. She found none.
Her crying grew soft, but persistent, like she’d been saving a lifetime’s worth of stifled reactions for the right moment and just realized it wasn’t the right moment but couldn’t shove it all back in. With her knees pulled up to her chest on the disheveled bed Sue suddenly looked tiny and far away. Perhaps I should have forgiven her, consoled her, told her untruths about how screwed up she was, at bottom a kind woman with nowhere to shove her kindness. Something, however, about how afraid she looked made me even more merciless.
“You can always tell,” I said, “whether you’re crying for someone else or for herself because a woman always cries for herself.”
My brain was clumsy and it took me two minutes to button my shirt.
“I haven’t been really sad in a long time,” she said.
“I believe you. You’re making advances.”
She clutched the neckline of her bathrobe together, eyes just a muted, watery green, mouth weak and closed. She hadn’t died her hair in days, and for the first time I spotted brown roots thrusting at the red. The cute nightlight lay submerged in its own coy glow, knocked off the table by our grim choreography.
Sue was sobbing my name.
“Harry, I have to tell you something.”
“I don’t want you to tell me anything because nothing you say is worth listening to and I’ve heard it anyway.”
I knotted my tie, forgetting the condition of my neck, and a searing stab of pain shot to my chin, reinvigorating my indignation.
On a shelf in the bedroom there was a row of colorful books, and on a few of the bindings was the big name of Dominic Early in goofy font.
“Who the hell is this goddamn Early guy?” I shouted at her.
She looked up, and when she did, I couldn’t look at her. Without difficulty I opened the door. For a second I glanced at her in the middle of the bedroom, lost in her own mind, bruised, childish, shaking. The hallway was demure, wider than I recalled, splattered with calm hues of blues and whites, of figures and round shapes and a tinsel ceiling. I eased the door closed soundlessly.
I waited for her to follow me out so that I could leave her again. Soon the sobbing stopped and another door clicked shut.
There was a drawing of the orchard, this one unframed, stuck to the wall with two strategic pushpins. It was sloped to the left. I felt the need to straighten it. A radio somewhere was playing opera. Cherubini, I thought. I’d never liked Cherubini much, never less so than now.
I hastened out like a nihilist at a village choir practice. Torrents of rain slapped the pavement, slapped my aching body, the pain radiating down from the smile in my neck as I ambled across the lawn, avoided the spitting sprinkler that sounded as though it were wishing me a loony farewell.
I stumbled through the vacant neighborhoods of the dusky morning, oblivious to the dimwitted paper boy in green hauling a sack of early editions over his shoulder, the delivery trucks, past the overnight factory men pulling dismally into driveways to sleep badly until the next shift, the knocked-down lawn ornaments and the weeping willows, the crows nibbling at overflowing garbage bins. Wives closed mailboxes with pops and sorted through letters and coupons. Bending into someone’s garden I plucked a larkspur and studded it into my breast pocket.
The handkerchief was coming undone and I had to continuously keep from handling it as a shot of mad torment shook me. I knocked into brick walls and telephone poles, wanting to vomit like I had never wanted anything else in my life.
I don’t know why in hindsight, but I was making for the Bergen residence. Other than not dying, the money in my freezer was the only claim I had, and Carol Bergen seemed the best person to feel sorry for myself with. I no longer had any idea what I was doing. What’s more, a mean notion hit me over and over — I hadn’t known what I’d been doing for quite a while.
My aspirations dwindling like a pack of geese at a skeet shoot, the great big clumsy solution struck me. A second later the enlightenment was lost in my creaking thoughts, and I couldn’t be sure what I had grasped.
At the Bergen place the little kid, Dot, met me on the porch. She was a fragile, brown-haired child eating apple sauce out of a blue plastic bowl with her hands. Her eyes were deeper and grayer than a child’s should have been. I was swaying on the top step. The street was too wet and too glistening and all of a sudden too hot to stand in.
The kid screamed. I patted my throat. The handkerchief was lying on my shoe, the rain rinsing it clean. Dot ran behind the screen door, small and dark against the interior of the house. Carol was shouting for her from the backyard.
“It’s OK,” I said to the kid. “Jome is OK. Just give him a minute.”
While I was stooping for the handkerchief, I toppled onto my head and heard, briefly, five million pairs of heels marching toward me. The sidewalk was moist and agreeable and I could have lain there for days. Hands prodded me, voices yelled, and all I could think of was my tailor’s extraordinary incompetence and how upset I was that the suit wasn’t finished yet.
I was floating in an airless vacuum and then I was tumbling back to earth, but maybe I didn’t want to be tumbling back to earth. I might have screamed out, or sobbed and spasmed, but I knew it was a delusion and I knew it was fleeting. It was that static elsewhere I recalled from my alcohol-induced fever days, a particular kind of location that doesn’t have any geographical location or depth. I just didn’t know how to get rid of it until something cold was splashing into my eyes.
Carol Bergen was daubing my head in gentle circles with a wet washcloth. Her brown eyes were concentrated and nurturing.
I reached for my neck, but she swatted my hand away. Carol handed me a bottle of whiskey that was nestled into the sofa-cushions between us and I took a long cool sip and let the liquor ooze onto my lap. She grabbed the bottle away.
“Don’t touch it,” she said. “I just wrapped it. It isn’t so bad, but you’ll have a pretty fever for a while, and you might think your head is going to fall off. But that’s probably a familiar sensation.”
Carol’s free hand was glued to a glass of bourbon floated with ice.
“I hate to mention it right now,” she said, “but I told you about her.”
“You didn’t tell me everything.”
“I didn’t know everything.”
She folded the compress in halves and continued to dampen my skin.
“Let me have some more of that bottle?” I said.
“Be quiet and don’t move,” she said.
Dot came into the living room trailing an anemic doll. She sat down cross-legged next to her mother on the floor. The kid stared at me uncomprehendingly, exactly the same way I would have looked at me if I were a child.
“Did Ben smoke?” I asked. The words echoed around in my head as though emitting from a sound-proof chamber, like I might have been communicating in rebuses.
“Never,” she said.
I closed my eyes and grinned inwardly, but the grin slipped onto my lips and the tightening brought a wave of discomfort.
“There’s something,” Carol said.
“It isn’t anything.” I took the bottle from its perch, brushed it lovingly on my cheek to soothe the heat emanating from my wound. Then I drowned the booze and handed the bottle back.
“I thought you didn’t drink,” she said.
“I don’t unless there’s some occasion.”
“This is no occasion.”
“I didn’t say it had to be a good occasion.”
“You’re funny, Mr. Jome.”
“I’m a few good laughs.”
I sat up. The soreness howled at me, then diminished somewhat. I couldn’t move my head side to side; every swallow was like being crucified on bamboo. The room hadn’t transformed. Still no pictures. Except for the orchard drawings.
“Where did all these awful things come from?” I asked, gazing at the drawing. “They’re all over town, for chrissakes.”
“Ben did them,” Carol said. “When he was at the orchard.
“Why?” I asked.
“Why?” she asked back.
Mrs. Bergen shuffled off to the kitchen with the bottle. The kid was leaning forward and searching my face for some token of understanding, then quickly giving up. For such youth, she had a tired gaze inherited from her mother and a worn expression that had not evaporated from her face since I got there.
“So, it’s not so bad after all?” I asked the kid.
She shook her head shyly, No.
Loaded with two glasses Carol handed me one solemnly. When she instructed Dot to leave the room the child did so obediently.
“I thought some glasses would make us more glamorous,” she said.
I drank loudly, slurping and choking down the booze and the booze was gentle and good.
“Why don’t you fetch the police?” she said in a concerto of ice-chewing. She was beside me on the couch, legs twisted under her.
“The police are too predisposed toward me at the moment.”
She blinked, lowered a glance into her drink and lapped it back. I skipped the part about the two dead investigators.
“Besides,” I said. “What are the police going to do when I tell them what happened? A crazy girl tries to murder me in her sleep.”
Carol’s eyes burned. “She was with you like that?” she asked.
I ignored her. “There’s nothing that can be done. But I was paid and I intend to see it through.”
“She’s dangerous and you’re lucky. There were many times…”
“Many times what?”
“She’s just dangerous.”
“She likes to think she is.”
“She hated Ben. She hates me.”
Carol shrugged and took the drink out of my hand and drank it. “Some people just hate. I can’t remember if I hated her first or not. It doesn’t have to make any sense.”
We shared a drink, watching the day tumble in through the window like old substantial friends who have not had a conversation in weeks. Between lovers silence can be an eloquent description of contentment; but between everyone else it’s usually just awkward. I was getting to enjoy Carol’s company and I didn’t want to enjoy it. I wanted to leave and I also didn’t want to leave.
The creases in Carol’s tight expression cracked apart as her mind wandered. She shivered at something. The quiet was munching on the both of us. I set the glass on the coffee table.
“You’re good,” she finally said, putting a hand on my arm.
“I’m not too good,” I said.
“I think you’re better than most.”
“That’s because most are awful.”
“It was a compliment.” The liquor was starting to depress her.
“Why did you ask about that smoking thing?” she said.
“Nothing much,” I said. “Just something.”
“What kind of something?”
“The kind that might be nothing.”
Suddenly Dot trudged back into the room hugging a blanket. Now I could see that she was a severely nervous kid who would grow up to be a severely nervous woman. Big round eyes of chalky blue. Experts whose job it is to reveal the sorrow of everything say that the older a person gets the more squinted their eyes become. Because the flesh around them expands, they say. The person is slowly shutting the world out of their world. And Dot was almost at that fine line when you stop wondering how birds can remain in a perfect V and you start wondering why your husband doesn’t watch you anymore when you’re removing your stockings or where your next paycheck is going to come from.
I looked at Dot and had miserable thoughts.
Quietly, Carol called her over and plunked her down in her lap. Dot didn’t move or say anything. One of Carol’s heels slipped off, displaying a sloppily painted set of pink toenails, feet excessively dainty. And I don’t know why, but I was suddenly clear.
“When was it that Ben died?” I asked her, enunciating each word.
She considered while making a face that seemed to question my intelligence.
“Two years ago,” she said.
I stood quickly.
“Why didn’t you tell me that?”
“Tell you what?”
“What you just told me.”
“You didn’t ask. Why would I think you didn’t know that?”
The phone’s ringing pounced in my ears and I believed for a second that it was my own anger.
“I got to go anyway,” I said.
“Where?” she asked.
“Up to the orchard,” I said. “I’m tired of this but if I don’t do something I won’t be able to do anything. Whatever it is, it’s there.”
It was trite and meaningless, but now that I knew why it was so trite and so meaningless it was neither and I couldn’t really specify what it was, except to say that I was exhausted and that my neck was sore.
Cold wind numbed the gash. The street everywhere was coming reluctantly into summer, albeit with the torrential rain diligently constant. Directly ahead of me a lone, brown-uniformed garbage collector hurled a bag into the jaws of a leisurely idling truck. I resumed walking and a man in denim stepped from behind the truck and walked on the other side of the street about 20 yards behind me. And from around the corner Cowper appeared and smiled at me as I passed by him.
TO BE CONTINUED…
PECK is among more than 40 writers featured in our 2011 10th-anniversary anthology, All Hands On: THE2NDHAND After 10.